How do I love thee? Let me count the ways?
Not long after Elizabeth Barrett Browning published that line in 1850, the opening of likely the most famous poem in her collection, “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” much of Victorian Britain was quoting it. The line applied to anything beloved: sweethearts, children, friends, dogs, pet crows or adored milk cows, and the poem was paraphrased to suit the object of affection.
I’m thinking about that poem as I look out on my rear garden and see a deciduous Magnolia macrophylla in its statuesque nudity, knowing that in a few weeks fuzzy buds will swell and leaves will begin to emerge in lime green. These leaves will grow and continue to grow, becoming richly verdant, papery, elongated ovals between 1 and 3 feet in length. The summer sun will filter through these leaves making a soft green glow that shades the terrace. When autumn comes, the leaves will drop (a daunting but well-worth-it clean-up), but I’ll collect a couple dozen of the largest and best of these leaves and take them indoors to lie and dry on my basement floor. In a few weeks these leaves will be slightly curved, a robust dark brown on the outside and silver on the inside. They make great filler for dried winter arrangements. I’m proud to say that my leaves have graced the altar at nearby Epiphany Parish. No doubt the angels were involved.
Now for the zinger: this magnolia not only has the largest leaves of the genus, but when the big creamy buds of thick petals open, the flowers are the size of volley balls. The blossom show peaks in June, but the plants continue to put out a bloom here and there throughout the summer. And with doors and windows open, the delicate fragrance, which fills the garden, wafts into the house. No doubt the angels are involved here, too. In a word: Heavenly.
There is still time to get this plant in the ground this month if you can find it. It’s a bit rare. As to why, that’s a mystery. Everyone should have this tree. It grows slowly to a height of 30 feet with a 20-foot spread; a good size for a city garden. Happy in our cool moist climate and rich acidic soil, this American tree, commonly called Bigleaf Magnolia, can be found sparsely scattered in forests from southern Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico. It has the largest single leaves and blossoms of any plant native to North America. That bragging right alone makes it worth growing.
If you put a plant in this month, keep it well watered through the summer and for the two following summers, at least. Then it should do just fine on its own. Remove the plant ever so gently from the nursery can, so as not to damage the fleshy roots. Dig a generous planting hole, placing the base of the trunk in a shallow saucer just slightly below the level of the surrounding ground, thereby funneling rain water to the tree.
You’ll fall in love with the foliage immediately. Then the day comes when the plant blooms.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thy form, thy foliage, thy flowers, thy fragrance, the ease of thy cultivation, the joy thou giveth me each season of the year.
So, a deep and well-deserved bow to you, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Thanks to a Magnolia macrophylla, your words continue to resonate in the 21st century.