I am not prey to the swoon of spring. As a seasoned gardener of thirty years, I have learned to mute its siren call, not from fear of seduction as much as dread of another ten-month-long growing season, full of malevolent surprise, unending work, and rampant change. When April comes, “breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” I take perverse delight in telephoning my friends in northern Vermont to be soothed by their reports of bone chilling cold, naked branches, and three inches of fresh snow.
In our West Coast garden, spring pounces in early February, coaxing groundhogs out of their winter burrows. Caught in the thick tide of vernal upwelling, I yearn for an anchor in the present moment, to prevent my being swept away by the flood of the seasons. The primeval magnolia is such a mooring plant for me.
My gardening teacher Harry Roberts used to encourage us to think of three good reasons for selecting any plant for the garden. When, many years ago, we planted magnolias in the heart of the Green Gulch garden, our reasons were clear and immediate: the magnolia is one of the oldest trees on earth and, once established, one of the easiest to grow; each magnolia carries a rich associative history for almost everyone who visits the garden; and the magnolia is lovely beyond measure, one of the first trees to bloom and announce the inevitable uncoiling of spring.
The fossil remains of magnolias date some one hundred million years ago to the Tertiary Period, when they grew from Western Ontario to the Antilles and throughout Asia, from Japan south to Java. Curiously, although the ancient magnolia was one of the first plants on earth to reproduce from flowers pollinated by insects, there are no natural magnolia hybrids in the wild, although garden hybrids abound, from “Manchu Fan” to “Rouged Alabaster.”
There are three clear classifications of magnolia. The evergreen Bull Bay of the Old South stands over one hundred feet tall, resplendent with white perfumed flowers and giant leathern leaves that are dark forest green on top and covered with soft, rust-colored down on their undersides. (At my mother’s funeral in her hometown of Birmingham, the spring air was thick with memory and the lemon scent of the Bull Bays that encircled her antebellum graveyard.) Then there are the deciduous magnolias, among them the umbrella tree of the northeastern United States and the Whiteleaf of Japan, which flower during full summer, their gigantic leaves both setting off and protecting their primitive, waxen flowers. And last of all, the hardy, delicate-flowered magnolias of the Far East: the star and lily magnolias, the willow-leaved magnolia of Mount Hokkaido in Japan, and Campbell’s white magnolia from the Himalayan foothills, all of which flower on bare branches long before their leaves appear, perfuming the cold spring air with a trace of melon and wild honey.
It is this last class of Asian magnolias that we chose to plant in our Zen gardens at Green Gulch. My daughter learned to climb on the well-placed branches of a pink-flowering star magnolia. On some days she perched in this tree all afternoon, lost in a pink haze of bloom—what Charles Darwin called “the abominable mystery” of the flowers.
The magnolia anchors me in this mystery, as well as in the timeless law of change. It renders almost sensible the incoherent babble of primavera at its root. Held in the ancient spell of Maha Magnolia Mind, I play with one of my favorite Zen poems, from Case 36 of The Iron Flute:
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