San Francisco Botanical Garden is home to the most significant magnolia collection for conservation purposes outside of China*, where the majority of species grow. Long considered the signature flower of the Garden, nearly 100 magnolias, many rare and historic, erupt in a fragrant riot of pink and white from mid-January through March. Our magnolia collection includes 51 species and 33 cultivars, including many prized examples from Asia.
This unique and long-standing collection began in 1939 with Eric Walther, who planted the very first magnolia in the Garden and continued to introduce species and cultivars throughout his tenure as the first Garden Director. One of the most famous species he planted was the cup and saucer magnolia or Magnolia campbellii, the first of its kind to bloom in the United States in 1940, attracting huge crowds of excited and curious visitors who stood in long lines to see the magnificent large pink blossoms of this lovely magnolia that still stands in the Garden today. More than a dozen other M. campbellii can now also be found throughout the Garden.
"A 50-foot tree with thousands of large pink flowers held upright against a blue sky is a sight one will remember for the rest of one's lifetime," says Don Mahoney, the Garden's Curator. "Magnolias are absolutely the signature flower of San Francisco Botanical Garden. The city has an ideal climate to support them, so we have been able to cultivate one of the world's most important magnolia collections – critical for their conservation and survival."
Magnolia campbellii. Photo by Joanne Taylor.
The Magnolia family – Magnoliaceae, named for botanist Pierre Magnol in 1748 – is considered by paleobotanists to be one of the earliest flowering plant families. Magnolia fossils date back nearly 100 million years to the time of the dinosaurs. The flowers are pollinated by beetles since bees had not yet evolved at that time. Survivors of several ice ages, magnolias thrived in the protected mountains of southern China, the southern United States, southern Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Eighty percent of the more than 245 species occur in Asia.