As I have mentioned in passing before, the botanist Pierre Magnol (1638–1715) was born in Montpellier, and spent most of his life there. His father and grandfather were apothecaries, and his mother’s male relatives were physicians. His older brother César inherited the business, but Pierre, who had shown an interest in botany from a very early age, entered the university of Montpellier (officially founded in 1289 by a papal bull of Nicholas IV, which pulled together the pre-existing schools of law, medicine and theology into one institution) in 1655 to study medicine.
A century earlier, he might not have been able to: in 1529 Nostradamus (1503–66) tried to enter to study medicine after several years working as an apothecary.
When this sordid background as a ‘manual worker’ was revealed, Nostradamus was expelled, as being in violation of the university statutes (the order of expulsion apparently still exists in the university archives), but this didn’t seem to be much of a setback for the seer who created a ‘rose pill’ to cure the plague, as well as an all-time best-selling book.
Montpellier drew students from across Europe. Guillaume Rondelet (1507–66), who as procurator had expelled Nostradamus, and whom his student contemporary, Rabelais, satirised in La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, counted among his pupils Clusius, L’Obel and Bauhin; Leonhart Fuchs was contemporary visitor. For later students of medicine, a particular attraction must have been the botanic garden, the earliest in France, which had been founded by Good King Henri IV in 1593.
Another advantage, especially for British students, was Montpellier’s tradition of Protestantism. Magnol was a raised as a Calvinist, but after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, he converted to Catholicism, and – probably not by coincidence – was appointed as demonstrator of plants in the botanic garden. (He had applied for the post in 1664, and for the professorship of medicine in 1667, but had been turned down for both.)
Conversion seems to have opened other doors: in 1693, on the recommendation of his former pupil Tournefort among others, he was appointed doctor to the royal court, and he became professor of medicine at Montpellier in 1694. Two years later, he was at last appointed director of the botanic garden, and in 1699 received a lifetime post as its ‘inspecteur’. Notable pupils as well as Tournefort were Antoine and Bernard de Jussieu, and Magnol corresponded with botanists across Europe, including the Englishmen John Ray, James Petiver and William Sherard (who endowed the chair of botany at Oxford University).
But the main reason we remember Magnol is of course that Charles Plumier (1646–1704), pupil of Tournefort, Royal Botanist to Louis XIV and traveller to the West Indies, named a wonderful flowering tree he discovered in Martinque in his honour.
The taxonomy of the magnolias is complicated, to put it mildly. Dillenius, Sherard and Catesby used the name for flowering trees from temperate North America, and Linnaeus, while acknowledging Plumier’s work, applied the name Magnolia to such trees – probably in error: he had never seen a specimen of Plumier’s plant, which was renamed Annona dodecapetala by Lamarck in 1786; later suggestions included Magnolia plumieri (1788), Magnolia fatiscens (1817), Talauma caerulea (1805) and Magnolia linguifolia (1822), to name but a few. It has now settled down as Magnolia dodecapetala.The discovery of completely different species of Magnolia in the Far East added yet more pieces to the taxonomical puzzle, and it is now believed that about 210 species exist, and reclassification continues, with Michelia figo being renamed Magnolia figo as recently as 2006 – and of course there are hundreds of hybrids of this hugely popular garden tree/shrub.
The magnolia is one of the oldest flowering plants known from the fossil record: recognisable forms date from 95 million years ago, and fossilised leaves and seed pods of M. acuminata (the cucumber tree) have been found from 20 million years ago. Various features, including the robustness of the pistils, suggest that the plant predated the development of bees, and was fertilised by beetles.
One of the earliest to flower in my neck of the woods is the spectacular M. sprengeri ‘Diva’, the deep pink petals of which catch the eye at a distance even on a gloomy day. I have two in the garden: an M. stellata, which must be about thirty years old and is aging rather more gracefully than the faux-lead (= fibreglass) planter in which it lives;
and my lovely ‘George Henry Kearn’, which was badly hit in the heat/drought last summer – it won’t flower this year, but it is still alive.
I also ‘borrow’ this view of the one next door.
As well as being popular in gardens, magnolias have always been a predictably favourite subject of painters, both botanic and other. Mrs Delany produced at least two magnolias among her famous paper cuts.
Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708–70) and Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1750–1840) (to name but two) frequently portrayed various magnolias – in addition to the requirements of their patrons to show off their most spectacular and exotic specimens, it must have been a great opportunity to show off one’s own virtuosity in depicting different shades of white?
And of course they can be frequently found in the great botanical magazines of the nineteenth century.
As the magnolia season gets into full swing, we need to keep our fingers tightly crossed against excessive rain or returning frost – as well, of course, as against Pseudomonas syringae (and other fungi which cause leaf spot), canker, verticillum wilt and especially the dreaded magnolia scale. This latter is thankfully not a problem in the UK (yet), but beware of biosecurity complacency: this January brought the first sighting in Britain of cotton stringy scale (Takahashia japonica), which looks as nasty as it sounds, and it was found on a magnolia.