Living Columns & Blogs

Plant a magnolia forever

May into early June is prime magnolia blossom time on the Mississippi Coast.
May into early June is prime magnolia blossom time on the Mississippi Coast.

Magnolias galore! As Spring claims its last weeks of 2018, we can't ignore the giant, fragrant, creamy petals so much a part of our Mississippi Coast identity. When I planned a late May visit here I didn't connect the dots that my timing was perfect for this blooming bonanza.

I see the behemoth blossoms everywhere – in yards, along city streets and major highways, in parks. The trees come in all sizes, from newly planted to vintage.

It matters not whether you love or despite the images of moonlight and magnolias, strong Southern women and the heritage of a region steeped in old traditions. Magnolias offer something for everyone.

They provide shade on a hot Coast day and add another green to our year-round verdure. They produce gorgeous flowers to photograph and for artists to paint. (Think how many Coast dining rooms feature a magnolia.) Best of all the heady blossom's scent is worthy of bottling for perfume.

The Magnolia grandiflora, the most common Southern magnolia, is a native evergreen that can grow to 90 feet. In more recent times, smaller but just as lovely varieties have joined the magnolia family. Not surprisingly, the nation's most likely champion grandiflora at 121 feet is in Smith County in this state. They grow from coastal North Carolina to central Florida, and west to Texas.

I recently drove by the site of my Gulfport childhood home, where the house is replaced but not the magnolia and Live Oak my mother planted in the mid-1960s. The magnolia even has a few blossoms.

The magnolia became the state flower in 1900, a decision made by the Mississippi school children when the voting was suggested by state legislators. The cotton flower came in a far second. State legislators, however, took another five decades to make the state flower official, and by that time, the magnolia was also the official state tree.

The next big magnolia step was the creation of the Keep Mississippi Beautiful campaign launched in 1961. Its major program was and still is the Avenue of the Magnolias. If you are not familiar with this program, you should be.

For a $25 donation you can have a magnolia planted in honor or memory of a friend, family member, colleague, or just someone you want to thank or acknowledge.

Instead of sending flowers to a funeral home or marking a special anniversary with a gift, I sometimes have to fill out the Avenue form to have trees planted instead. I also am the recipient of several plantings by people who thanked me for keeping our local sense of place in the forefront.

The way I interpret it, the Avenue of the Magnolia's is a three-way gift. The giver is contributing to something lasting; Mississippi is benefiting from another planted magnolia; and, the person for whom the tree is planted now has a lasting memorial.

A number of major roadways and city entrances are marked for Avenue plantings, and you, the giver, chose which site in which county. As you drive Interstate-10 through Jackson, Harrison and Hancock counties, look for the trees as this section of the state has popular Avenue sites.

About a thousand or so magnolias are planted across the state each year through the Avenue program. Some, of course, are lost to storms and development or poor weather conditions, but replantings have continued for more than 50 years.

Today, the program is under the umbrella of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. To learn more, visit www.mdac.ms.gov/agency-info/programs/keep-mississippi-beautiful-project or called 601-359-1100.

Let's plant more magnolias for our future generations. Consider the quote from Eudora Welty in the Mississippi author's “Wide Net,” in which one of her characters observes, “Magnolia and live-oak never die. Remember that.”

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.

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