Skip to content

Gardeners Blog

Mahonia sketch by Gardener Liv
Mahonia sketch by Gardener Liv | © Gardener Liv

Here you will find the latest updates and musings from the garden team at Sheffield Park and Garden

Latest updates

1 April

by Gardener Liv

It is always surprising to me how the season of spring has gained such a reputation for being a gentle season. Easter is joyfully celebrated in pastel colours, with vases full of delicate branches festooned with soft feathers or painted eggs, meanwhile the saccharine imagery of rabbits or ducklings decorates shop windows and cafes everywhere. Yet, this time of year is far from tranquil and instead embodies a raw energy that often eludes us.

Think of Stravinsky’s musical piece, Rite of Spring – a memorable theme made famous by its accompaniment to the dinosaur scene in Fantasia – one would hardly describe it as docile. The piece perfectly captures the unpredictable, sometimes even violent, nature of the season, evoking it as a battleground for survival, where animals awaken, hungry, from hibernation, while others fiercely guard their young against menacing predators.

This season is anything but sweet. It is a force to be reckoned with, where life bursts forth into a flurry of activity. In our forests, the air is thick with the pungent scent of wild garlic, a potent herb known for its tonifying properties. Determined to live and thrive, leaves and flowers compete, pushing through earth and wood towards the light and out of their darkness. Still, though, the threat of a frost looms on the horizon.

As humans, we merely grasp the surface of this tumultuous time, only sensing its nuances more keenly in those moments when we are more attuned to our surroundings. Mostly, from our viewpoint as disruptors of nature, we observe from the sidelines, detached from the drama unfolding around us. We may catch a fragment of spring warmth and bask in the sun for a minute or two, delighted by the sight of blossom. Or revel in the sight of a Magnolia in bloom. Out of all the flowering trees, it is the latter that embodies the simultaneous vulnerability and strength of spring more than any other.

Magnolias are the essence of the delicateness of spring. The refined pink tulip shaped flowers of, for example, Magnolia soulangeana, are a common sight in urban areas and parks at this time of the year, as they grow well in most soil types. (There are several nestled in various locations at Sheffield Park and Garden, mostly along Big Tree Walk) Cradled within the petals hides a little cluster of spiky, hedgehog like stamen, which reveal themselves more as the flower passes and loses its petalled mantle. This is a first clue that this flower has a little more resilience than meets the eye.

Magnolias are, simply put, as fascinating as they are beautiful, Magnoliaceae being one of the oldest tree families in existence. They evolved on Earth earlier than bees, coexisting instead with the dinosaurs as far back as 95 million years ago during the Cretaceous period, so it is in fact beetles that pollinate the flowers. Because of this, the Magnolia’s carpels – the female reproductive part of a flower – are tougher than most flowers as they must withstand the damage caused by a beetle’s mandibles while it retrieves pollen.

The natural habitat of Magnolias ranges from North and Central America, and Asia, specifically in China, Japan, and Korea. The difference in blooming times between American species of Magnolia – of which there are eight in total – and the Asian ones, reflects the climates they habitually thrive in. Most American species – such as Magnolia grandiflora  - bloom later once the leaves have been produced and frosts have passed. Meanwhile, most Asian species bloom earlier, on bare branches, untethered by any competition with burgeoning leaves. These wonderfully paired back varieties are depicted in many Asian paintings and art, for example by Katsushika Hokusai or Kubo Shunman, and, as with Camellias, are part of a rich cultural web, spanning myth, science and art.

Other than their claim to fame as one of the oldest trees, Magnolias have been getting a bit of press lately for other reasons. One is their edibility - some species are favoured among modern foragers and chefs, falling neatly in line with the current trend for edible flowers. The other is their intolerance to climate change. As early as 2007, a report published by the BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) and Fauna and Flora International, found that from a total of 245 species worldwide, around 131 wild Magnolias were in danger of extinction – that is almost half of the Magnolia population. As such, many species are classified as being endangered and feature on the IUCN red list of threatened species.

And so, despite their incredible resilience and capacity to have survived on Earth for thousands of years, many species of Magnolia are also extremely vulnerable to sudden environmental changes. The early blooming varieties, programmed to break through their tough furry shells and flower in warmer conditions, often fall prey to unforeseen cold snaps. In the UK, many gardens are witnessing Magnolia trees flowering earlier, resulting in blooms being damaged by cold before reaching full maturity. However, later flowering varieties, like the grandiflora, show greater resistance to drought, offering a bit of hope amidst changing climates.  

Such is the character of a Magnolia, embodying strength, and frailty, at once, yet this duality takes nothing away from the magnificence of this ancient species of tree. And isn’t the real beauty of nature found, precisely, in such imperfections and contradictions? Or perhaps, at least, in our acceptance and our appreciation of them, for reminding us that change is an inevitable part of life's creative force. 

That is, after all, what the season of spring is really about.

Star-shaped Kobus Magnolia at Sheffield Park and Garden
Star-shaped Magnolia Kobus at Sheffield Park and Garden | © Gardener Liv
Looking up at the star-shaped Kobus Magnolia at Sheffield Park and Garden
Gazing up at the Magnolia Kobus at Sheffield Park and Garden | © Gardener Liv
A wintery scene over the lakes at Sheffield Park and Garden, East Sussex

Discover more at Sheffield Park and Garden

Find out when Sheffield Park and Garden is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.