The tree of secrets, shadows and scents

In praise of the magnolia.

There is nothing bland about magnolias. Photograph: Dirk Wuestenhagen

There are certain images and associations that never become cliches, so when I arrived at my hotel in Williamsburg, Virginia a few days ago, I was delighted to discover a fine specimen of the Southern Magnolia, (M. grandiflora), right outside my window.

After a longer than usual winter, it is spring in Virginia now – daffodils and camellias blooming in the gardens, the improbable first whites of dogwood just starting to break along the winery road – but the magnolias are still to come, a tantalising promise hanging on the air all across town. This is a pity; for me, magnolias are the most gorgeous of blossoms, the lush, white petals unfolding against waxy, dark-green foliage in a haze of intoxicating citronella-and-honey fragrance that feels like the gateway to a world that would make even the most jaded and cynical believe again in true romance.

Even without the flowers, these are beautiful trees, especially if you take the trouble to sit and watch the play of light on the wide, glossy leaves; thick shadows forming in the spaces between, unseen birds flickering back and forth to the deep interior. Few trees are so closed and secretive, and at the same time so extravagant, columns of warmth and scent in spring and granaries of seed for possums and turkeys later in the year.

The tree species most often associated with Virginia is less showy. Everyone knows the song about “the trail of the lonesome pines”, (the Table Mountain pine, Pinus pungens) and it is easy to see how these low, strangely haunting trees got their name. To my mind, however, the most beautiful of the south-eastern pines is the Longleaf, (P. palustris) that once dominated this part of Virginia – though by now the native population has dwindled so much that an ambitious programme of planting and controlled burning has been created to restore this extraordinary species to at least some of its former glory.

This is important, not just for the sake of the trees, (though on a spring morning, when its light-green, ten-18- inch-long needles shimmer in the sunlight, few sights are more beautiful) but also for its associated flora of orchids, carnivorous pitcher plants and turkey oak.

When the first Englishmen arrived on the shores of what they would come to call Virginia, there were an estimated 90 million acres of unspoiled forest, populated by red-cockaded woodpeckers and gopher tortoises, the forest floor spotted with pixie moss and white-fringed orchids. It would have been a breathtaking vision – and it is hard to understand, imagining such a scene, or simply standing in a wave of magnolia fragrance, why anyone would believe that this world was made for humans, or that we have the right to do with the forests what we will.

Nevertheless, the truth remains that we, as a species, have been both greedy and careless in our dealings with this land – a fact illustrated most poignantly by the fate of Virginia’s first naturalist, John Banister, who pioneered the study and classification of the state’s flora and fauna. Some mystery remains as to the exact details but it seems that, during a botanising expedition on the Roanoke River in May 1692, he was mistaken for an animal as he stooped to examine a plant, and was casually shot by a party of hunters.

He was 42 years old. Had he lived to complete the Treatise on the Flora and Fauna of Virginia he was writing when he died, he would have found his just place in the history of science. As things turned out, his letters, drawings and herbarium specimens were appropriated by others, sometimes without acknowledgment, reducing a remarkable figure to a footnote in the biographies of Linnaeus, John Ray and Henry Compton, the “gardening Bishop” of London, who used seeds and cuttings supplied by Banister to establish the renowned gardens at Fulham Palace.