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Cherry blossoms reign supreme among this region’s flora, both in the popular imagination and in economic fortitude—the trees enjoy a poignant backstory of international goodwill, and the annual Cherry Blossom Festival generates millions each spring in tourist spending. (Festival organizers put last year’s figure at $170 million and project similar revenue for this year.) But in the seat of democracy, why should one tree hold all the power? Beyond the Tidal Basin sprout dozens of conifers and deciduous species worthy of our attention. But perhaps none is so deserving as the magnolia.
There’s no need to denigrate the cherry blossom—an undeniably lovely, if overrated, tree—because the many merits of this region’s magnolias speak for themselves.
D.C.’s location in the mid-Atlantic is uniquely suited for magnolias, according to National Arboretum horticulturist Christopher Carley. “Because we’re sort of in between a cold climate and warm climate, we can grow a lot of kinds of them,” Carley says, from the Magnolia grandiflora to the Sparkleberry Holly magnolia. Mississippi may call itself the Magnolia State, but it can’t pull off many Jane magnolias.
The variety of species means different types will bloom at different points throughout the spring and summer. The early-blooming star magnolia is starting now; the saucer magnolia will follow in a few weeks.
According to Virginia Tech horticulture professor Alex Niemiera, the design of a magnolia petal leave the trees’ blossoms even more exposed to danger than the cherry blossoms. “Magnolias have a lot longer petals, so they tend to be a bit more vulnerable,” Niemiera says. The showy, radiating bloom of the star magnolia, in Niemiera’s experience, is nipped in the bud completely once every four years by frost.
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Magnolias are pollinated by beetles, not bees. Kinky!
No need to fight a crush of tourists on the Mall to see magnolias—the trees live all over the city. (If you are willing to make the trip, Carley recommends the Smithsonian Haupt Garden, which hosts a “beautiful display” of saucer magnolias.) The Arboretum also has a large collection, which include rare magnolias and hybrids.
Carley eschews diplomacy. “It’s a different feeling,” he says of the magnolia compared to the cherry. “They’re bigger, more majestic. And I’d have to say I like them better.”
Photos are courtesy of the National Arboretum