Portrait of a magnolia as a young twig…

Garden's Grace Portrait of a Magnolia as a Young Twig

Alexander Pope has often been quoted from his Essay on Man:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

We feel it keenly as spring is slowly unfolding. We walk the yard every day, looking for growth and change and surprise, and more often than not, we find it.

It was on just such a walk yesterday that I discovered that the once seemingly hopeless Star Magnolia in my back border was exuberantly blooming, and it made me smile. Several years ago, I worked at a Des Moines area garden center during the summers. That particular summer was one of the “scorchers.” Day after day there were hot winds and little rain.

We had received a nice shipment of trees and shrubs and as is common in garden center work, most of our time was consumed with keeping the plants thriving. One by one, home gardeners had picked out awesome fruit, flowering and ornamental trees. As I recall, we’d received five little one gallon Star Magnolias from Monrovia. They were relatively inexpensive and were attractive to patient gardeners who knew a bargain when they saw it.

All but this one lone little Star Magnolia in a one gallon pot. Unlike its siblings, it didn’t have any branching to attract a buyer. And as the hot summer drew on, more than once it was blown over and rolled across the garden lot, sometimes lodging under a bench or against another pot. It lost most of its leaves. When we could, we’d catch it and water it as best we could, but the water would soon evaporate, it would become top heavy (all 14 inches of it), and soon be rolling or tipped before we knew it.

Fall drew near, and garden center cleanup commenced–clipping back soon to be dormant spirea, cleaning up leaves, packing plants away all snuggled together to keep each other warm during the impending winter. All but the little Star Magnolia, whose flexible bark said “I live!” but whose diminutive size and lack  of flash looked to be dooming it to the dumpster.

The garden center manager asked aloud, “should we toss this one?” and something in me told me it wasn’t this little guy’s time yet. “I’ll take it!” I called out, and as I remember, perhaps $5.00 changed hands. I brought it home, nestled it in the ground in my back border, watered it, put a cage of chicken wire around it and doubted it would make it through what turned out to be a pretty intense Iowa winter.

This little magnolia has made some progress over the years, and now stands about 7 feet tall. It has nice branching, and I was astounded at the extravagant flowers yesterday when I discovered it blooming in the back. The scent was a little sweet, maybe with a hint of citrus. I definitely plan to bring some cuttings indoors today to enjoy the aroma indoors.

And what I’m reminded of is the little sad sack twig, rolling around the nursery lot, all alone, and offering promise to only the most optimistic eye. What that magnolia reminds me of is what the onset of spring does for most of us who live by the seasons–it offers a nugget of hope, of things unrealized and perhaps even unimagined. No doubt, it is probably why many of us garden–because sun and rain and earth bring forth life and beauty and enjoyment. And that, friends, is a very good thing indeed!


Blog written by Anne Larson, Des Moines area horticulturist and writer for Iowa Gardener Magazine, and a weekend associate with Miller Nursery.