In the heart of wintry July, M. campbellii is the first magnolia to open and promises the delight of a new spring. At least, that is when our tree blooms. All the tarseal and concrete in the central city of New Plymouth lifts the temperature and the cluster of trees in the Huatoki Reserve by Powderham Street open their first flowers in June, before they have even shed all their autumn foliage.
For the past two Julys, I have spent more time than I should have taking photos of our tree against the snow-capped peak of Mount Taranaki. The magnolia and the maunga, I call the series. There is a distance of maybe 40 km or so between the two so this is right at the limits of both the zoom on my camera and my technical skills but I keep trying for the perfect image without having to resort to cheating with filters and the computer.
When I look at my photo file on campbellii, I have a series of trees framed against backgrounds – one in our local town of Waitara against the spire of the Church of St John the Baptist, a specimen at Tupare garden with the backdrop of the rushing Waiwhakaiho River, the aforementioned Powderham Street specimens against a carpark building, even one on Mount Baotai, framed by Chinese roof lines. I think what drives me is the effort to capture the spirit of over the top, gorgeous flowers appearing in a winter landscape.
Magnolia campbellii is one of the oldest varieties in New Zealand. It dates back to the second half of the nineteenth century and was sold commercially by Duncan and Davies as early as 1915. Before you rush out to buy one, you need to be aware that this species can take many years before it sets flower buds and ultimately grows into a very large tree. Its early season blooming also makes it vulnerable to frost damage in cooler parts of the country. If you are only going to plant one magnolia, maybe look to one of the more recent hybrids, although M. campbellii itself belongs in any collection. Our specimen here was one of the first trees planted in our park by Mark’s father, Felix, in the early 1950s.
The pink campbellii is the most common in Taranaki where the majority are the particularly good ‘Quaker-Mason form’. It is traced back to Thomas Mason (commonly referred to as Quaker Mason, on account of him being a Quaker), a prominent Wellington horticulturist who arrived as a new settler in 1841 and had a huge influence through until the end the century. But the pink that we take as the norm here, is in fact not at all common in the wild where most campbelliis are white. Apparently our pink originated in Darjeeling – an area better known for its tea in India’s north east.
Overall, M. campbellii has a wide natural distribution. It grows from eastern Nepal, across Sikkim and Assam into south western China and down to northern Burma. We were thrilled to see a plant on Mount Baotai in China last year, even though its pale pink blooms showed it to be a pretty average form of the species. We couldn’t tell if it was naturally occurring or had been moved into its current position, as the modern Chinese are wont to do.
We don’t have a white M. campbellii in our garden so I had to head to Tupare Garden in New Plymouth to photograph their mature specimen that dates back to the late 1940s or early 50s. The blooms have a curious green flush at the juvenile stage but the tree is not a strong growing, distinctive form. It is not a patch on all the pink Quaker-Mason specimens around but there will be other white forms available in New Zealand.
These are all Magnolia campbellii var. campbellii. The other popular form of the same species, known as Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata, originates from areas further to the east and flowers several weeks later. Our fine specimen of purple ‘Lanarth’ (or Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’, to be pedantic) will not flower until halfway into August.
First published in the July issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.
The word maunga means mountain in the Maori language. In Taranaki, where the presence of our beautiful maunga (Mount Taranaki) is a defining element for all who live here, the word maunga is often used in preference to the English word.
The blue skies are indeed genuine. We have a clarity and intensity of light here all year round, even in mid winter. Though it must be said that not every day in winter has blue skies!