By Erin Bank
Every year from mid-January through March, the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park puts on a show. Or rather, its magnolia trees do. From eye level to 80 feet in the air, blossoms ranging from white to deep fuchsia can be found in every corner of the Garden.
Ryan Guillou, curator of the Garden, proudly says: “It’s our signature collection.”
Indeed, the Garden is home to more than 200 magnolia trees, many more than 100 years old, across 63 species and 49 cultivars. They range in height from five feet to more than 100 feet tall and can grow to be between 200 and 400 years old, with both evergreen and deciduous varieties.
Magnolia trees planted in the Garden predate its official opening. Many trees were brought from countries all over the world during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition and planted on the site reserved for a future arboretum. The Botanical Garden opened in 1940 after decades of planning and fundraising, most notably from the bequest of Helene Strybing.
As if to join in the celebration, one of the Garden’s first magnolia trees, a Mangolia campbellii (cup and saucer magnolia) bloomed that year. It was the first of its kind to bloom in the United States. This tree still lives in the Garden and continues to blossom each year.
Approximately 20% of the Magnolia species in the Garden are listed as threatened. Nearly 50% of all Magnolia species worldwide are threatened in the wild, due to habitat destruction and over-harvesting.
“Besides being a pretty oasis, the Garden is important for conservation,” Guillou said.
A magnolia tree in full bloom last year at the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. Photo by Michael Durand.
The mild climate of San Francisco mimics the mountainous regions in which magnolias are often found in the wild, so many species of the magnolia tree can grow here. Individual trees are fairly low maintenance; the hard work is looking after the long-term health and conservation of threatened species. To help with this mission, the Garden was awarded a grant from Botanic Gardens Conservation International, which is establishing a Global Conservation Consortium for Magnolia. The funds allow partner gardens to propagate the rarest species and share them with other locations.
“If a big windstorm comes through and knocks down the only tree we have here, we know the species is safe somewhere else,” Guillou said.
Magnolias are a key tool for the Garden’s many educational programs. According to Executive Director Stephanie Linder, they’re an ancient species, with a long history and significance in many cultures. The trees existed prior to flying insects. Magnolias evolved before bees, so they were originally pollinated only by beetles. Now, they’re pollinated by many insects, including bees. The flowers are useful for teaching about the anatomy of a flower.
Guillou and Linder are excited to welcome visitors during the main blooming season, which they hope won’t slow down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need a little joy,” Guillou said.
During the pandemic, digital tours are available for visitors to the Garden. Signs at each tree will display a QR code that visitors can scan with their phones and access information about the tree. Volunteers will be stationed around the Garden to answer questions. For those wanting to enjoy the magnolias from home, there is also virtual programming with leading experts and digital tours available on the Garden’s website.
But since the Garden covers 55 acres, there is plenty of space for social distancing and safe visiting. Advanced ticketing is available. Although the Garden has yet to reach capacity, one perk is the expedited line for advance ticket holders on weekends.
“Go get lunch from a local merchant and enjoy a picnic here in the garden. Think about something else for a while,” Linder recommended.
She also suggested visitors wander slowly through the Garden to enjoy all the different varieties of blossoms.
“Pro tip: look up! But, don’t slip on the petals,” she said.
February is the busiest month at the Garden, and the perfect time to plan a visit to see the magnolias.
“We’re all coming out of a hard year, and we can celebrate with happy, cheery blooms,” Linder said.
The Garden is free for San Francisco residents, school groups, members, and recipients of food assistance through SNAP benefits.
For more information, go to www.sfbg.org/visit.
Magnolia zenii is the rarest Magnolia in the Garden and IUCN red-listed as critically endangered, only a few dozen of these plants were found when they were discovered in China in 1931. Courtesy photo.
Categories: Golden Gate Park