In the past couple of years I have developed an increasing love and fascination with these ancient trees. Their sensual feminine blooms, the abundant branches one of the first drastic changes to a barren winter landscape; is always a welcome sight to me. I walk past this one often. It hangs over a garden wall onto the path I follow several times a week. In its bud form it is fuzzy and full of promise, I observe the growth of these buds over a few months, then BOOM! out they pop and spring is coming. The velvet casing falls away and I nibble the first Tepals. Spicy and full of life.
Magnolias are often associated with women. The blossoms have a shape vulva like in construct, revealing a little fruit when they fall away. They speak of the Goddess, often white and pink but many varieties are known (roughly 210 if my research serves me). They smell light, sweet and a touch musty.
Named after french botanist Pierre Magnol, There are varieties found across Europe, America (the official state flower of Louisiana and Mississippi) and Asia (the official flower of Shanghai, North Korea and Gangnam). Magnolia trees existed before bees came on the scene and are pollinated by beetles. There are fossil specimens dating back 20 million years (bees only arriving 14 million years ago). The Victorians used them to symbolize dignity, nobility and poise.
The Mills Magnolia
There are a few stories about Magnolia’s out there. One famous specimen was planted by president Jackson in the grounds of the White House in around 1835 in memory of his late wife and only cut down recently due to disease. However I’d like to tell you the story of a tree I know…
There is a hillside near me covered in sheep. I walk the lane that runs up it regularly, at least a couple of times a week, and have been doing so for years. So, through no choice of his own, I’ve become friendly with a man known to me only as ‘Farmer John’. He is everything you would expect from a rural farmer and kindly allows me to bring children to see the lambs etc, we talk about the changing seasons and the habits of dogs.
Last year, I decided I was going to add Magnolia to my ‘goddess oil’ recipe (listed below) so I was keeping an eye for any I could collect from. One day, when walking back down the lane I am so in love with, I noticed Farmer John has one right in front of his house and its HUGE! how had I never seen it before? So asked him, as we leaned over the fence that day, if I could have some. He was puzzled, not realizing it was a plant that could be so useful. I explained my intention but he told me he wasn’t allowed to touch it. It’s his mothers tree and was planted in memorial of his sister. Once I explained I only needed some of the fresher petals off the ground, he returned with an armful for me. I thanked him, awkwardly put them in an unused poo bag, (I often find dog poo bags are all I have without my trusty basket, it feels less rootsy, and a bit gross, but there we are) and went on my way.
As the wheel continued to turn I added the other usual ingredients to my Goddess Oil, bottled it up and gave some out to the people (mostly women)in my life in need of nourishment and also as gifts, saving plenty for myself.
It wasn’t until this spring when walking by it occurred to me to ask FJ about his sister. he arranged for me to meet his mum Christine. I feel its a poignant story due the connection Magnolia has with women. She has given me permission to share it
The tree itself is planted right by the front door and until recently was bigger than the house (which is also of considerable size). Christine greeted me kindly . She showed me pictures of the tree as it has grown and we sat down together in her lounge.
Baby Helen Elizabeth was Christine’s and her husbands first child. Tragically she was born with Hirschsprung’s disease which is a rare condition affecting the bowel. When Helen was diagnosed there were only 30 recorded cases (there has been a cure discovered since involving surgery) she died in spring 1962 aged 5 months. Christine only has one picture of baby Helen (which Helen’s sister has). despite having had loads taken, none of the negatives would develop. Eventually an uncle who was a chemist managed to develop one for her. She is smiling in it and her mass of dark hair is up in a top not. Christine’s recollection of this one and only picture of her little one made me think about how much we take pictures for granted these days and I made a mental note to have more printed off rather than store them all digitally. I asked her what made her choose a magnolia for Helen and she recalled the moment she decided.
“we were driving back [from Devon to Cornwall]. We had been to the crematorium . As a remembrance really because that’s where she is. We came up the A38 what is now Lee Mill there were all these magnolia trees. It would have been the same time as now[early April]. This year its the same dates; Mothering Sunday was a fortnight after she died and Easter a fortnight after that. And we came along and all these Magnolia trees were out and it was an absolute picture. We decided that we would buy a tree in memory of her and that’s how it happened, really it was the time of year it happened and it all just seemed to come together. “
I haven’t looked into the dates but I found it interesting the dates for Easter are variable and I came around asking about Helen’s tree when those dates were the same again.
Christine and her husband went out and bought a sapling and planted it on their lawn in Cornwall. A few years later, when they moved, they dug it up and brought it with them. Despite its size and the proximity to the house (for reasons clear to me) it has only been cut twice. Firstly, Years ago, when Christine’s other daughter got married, Farmer John cut a low branch that was encroaching on the path. Christine said she was furious. Judging by John’s reaction when I asked him for some of the blossom I think that may have been an understatement. Once more, only recently because it needed a good trim. it was bigger than the house. Though they seem to tease each other about it in good spirits. I got the feeling she worries what will happen to it ‘when she’s gone’.
we talked of the changing landscape and of old ways. I told Christine of my ambitions and interests in ‘Canny folk’ A word she hadn’t heard in a long time and although she wouldn’t have described herself as one she told me of her Uncle Fred
“a bit of a nutcase to a point. He believed in charming. He could charm anything. And he was known for it. People would ring him up and ask him to charm different things. As a child, I remember I was absolutely mesmerized by the stories he told. Of all the different things that people had experienced, of a horse that was bleeding badly. And the old gypsy charmed it and the next footstep there was no blood at all and things like that. My mother had toothache when she was staying with him, when she was probably in her 20’s ‘oh I can charm that’ he says. He charmed her toothache and she burst out laughing. He was furious. And of course her toothache didn’t go did it.
In later life we had ringworms, the cattle we had, had ringworm. My mother said. ‘I can charm that’ , I said oh don’t be ridiculous, she said, Uncle Fred has given me the charm for it. And she went down there. Those ringworms disappeared and we never had another one. So of course she’d been won over by then. Nettles that was another one, they used to boil nettles for different complaints and things like that, he was one that was always into remedies that were really and truly from the earth .I think now that it has gone full circle really, because people have come back into it. He was a great believer of that type of thing.”
Me too, Uncle Fred.Me too.
Triple Goddess Oil
to create an oil infusion is easy in my opinion. simply steep the herbs in whichever carrier oil you choose in a clean, sterile jar, and leave it for at least 3 months in a warm location. (I put mine in the back of a kitchen cupboard) but preferably as long as possible. The ‘Triple’ aspect of this recipe comes from the 3 seasons in which I collect and add the ingredients:
Spring-Magnolia: nourishing, feminine and Divine Summer-Calendula: soothing and healing for sore and dry skin conditions Autumn-Rose hips (chopped or bruised) anti-aging, brightening all round essential for every goddess!!
You could add other herbs as you require for example; rosemary has more antiseptic properties. as you add ingredients be sure to top up the oil so it covers all the materials by 1 CM and push down to release any bubbles to prevent mould. I also only use wooden spoons to avoid any reaction occurring.
When the oil has taken on the essence of the herbs they will appear dark and wilted in the bottom. Sieve the oil through a muslin/cheesecloth, discard the spent herbs and decant into clean sterile jars. I buy little pipette bottles from the pharmacy (a little of this oil really does go a long way) and gift them to friends and loved ones. I use it as a make-up remover, a balm for eczema and other skin complaints, a cuticle oil and add it to other balms and recipes as required.
Another faster method, should you require it, for infusing oil is listed in my warming/cooling balm recipe