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Magnolias in bloom

  • Magnolia campbellii, two flowers at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. (David Kruse-Pickler)

They are the botanical equivalent of a Southern belle. With their voluptuous blooms in garden party colors, magnolia trees are as iconic to the Deep South as mint juleps.

But while about 10 percent of the world's magnolias do hail from the Southern U.S., they really don't like the tropics. Some 80 percent of magnolias are native to China and India, and thrive in more temperate climates.

They grow well in the North Bay and the greater Bay Area; in fact, conditions are so hospitable that foggy San Francisco is home to the most important collection of magnolias outside of China, and the fourth most important conservation collection in the world. Who knew?

Of the 70 different varieties and 160 individual specimens of magnolia gracing the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park, nine are included on the “Red List” of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global environmental organization with 11,000 experts who help set the standards for identifying the risk faced by both plant and animal species.

Among those is the small, deciduous and critically endangered Magnolia zenii. Listed as “critically endangered,” there were only a few left dozen of these found when the variety was first discovered in China in 1931.

This extraordinary collection is beginning to burst into flower now, visual relief in winter when precious little is in bloom. Some 100 specimens will put on a show before dropping their blossoms in a lush carpet of color that is almost as beautiful on the ground as on the branch, said chief curator Don Mahoney.

The garden is celebrating its impressive collection from now through March, with several special events, including monthly guided walks through the magnolias “by moonlight,” and classes in pencil-drawing magnolias and mixing magnolias into tasty cocktails using two of the garden's famed varieties of magnolia. There are also kids' activities like mobile-making and a scavenger hunt, all tied to what has become the “signature flower” of the San Francisco Botanical Garden.

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