In my arid Colorado childhood, I read of mythical denizens of humid lands. Fireflies, magnolias and buttercups were as unimaginable to me as fairies and sprites, and just as unreachable. I saw fireflies for the first time in Hayes Kansas when I was 16. Magnolias and buttercups entered my life when I moved to Virginia after graduating from the University of Colorado.
Now, on our daily walks, those same mythical flowers mark the seasons and our route. In spring, the woods on the left are fragrant with honeysuckle intertwined with blackberries. Past the buttercups and wild raspberries on the right are the cattails rising from the narrow bit of marsh, announced well in advance by its pungency. Next comes the line of magnolias shading the roadside. We watch the buds for signs of summer. Finally, one day, when the air presses down like a steaming blanket, an unmistakable aroma extends down the little hill. The slight climb feels so steep that only the hope of magnolias keeps me going. There, up in the dark glossy leaves with their velveteen undersides, it gleams, white as the moon. A single magnolia lights the tree, signaling summer.
in steaming summer
I sweat, trying to describe
the magnolia’s scent
Fragrance companies describe the magnolia’s lemony scent this way: “Magnolia has a sweet floral fragrance that’s lightly fruity, with some comparing the scent to that of Champagne.” According to the Floral Society, “Magnolia is one of those blowsy white floral ingredients … creamily sweet, but with a fresh edge to its petal power.”
Today I read “The Scent of the Magnolia, a love letter to the fragrant South” in the magazine Garden&Gun (can you get more Southern than that?) The author aptly described magnolia as Eau de South.
There’s so much more to say about magnolias, the way they turn brown when touched, the cloying scent as the bloom fades, the seed pod that forms afterward, with flat fuchsia seeds popping out in fall…
For me, this flower is the highlight of the season. Every summer I say, “Never again will I complain of humidity.” Wilting in the heat, I trudge up the little hill to the line of magnolias. Then I walk back toward my house, and as soon as I leave the influence of the fresh scent, I start to complain again.
About the photo: My mom is a big fan of “Gone with the Wind,” so when the summer gets sultry, I can’t help thinking of Scarlett O’Hara under the magnolia. That brings to mind corsets and smelling salts. If I ever feel woozy, I hope someone will hold a magnolia under my nose.