pierre laszlo


To many of us, the magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora) is a familiar sight if rather extravagant: a tall spreading tree, with large, very noticeable leaves and even more remarkable flowers as befits the name of the species, grandiflora, i.e., big flowers. For once, these common perceptions agree with science. Not all of them, though. One may construe naively the name “magnolia” to be derived from the Latin magnus, i.e., “large”. Actually, the name of this plant was given — by Linnaeus himself, according to some authors — as an homage to Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), who was a physician and a botanist in Montpellier, France (and whose family name may indeed have come from the Latin adjective). On the same topic of dedications, in part I am writing this piece in homage to Magnolia Gomes de Oliveira, a Brazilian lady who was our live-in maid in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1950s and who became a friend of the family. But back to the magnolia tree. It originated in the southeastern United States and it was introduced to Europe, as its very name hints, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The leaves are elliptic-oval, with a smooth edge, 10-20 cm long, rather hard and resistant, a shiny dark green on the top and of a rusty reddish tint on the bottom. Which evokes another personal memory. When 18, I went hitchhiking by myself from France to Sicily. While in Palermo, I culled a magnolia leaf and used it as a postcard to my mother in Grenoble, writing with a ballpoint pen on the underside of the leaf. Even though the stamp I affixed was long gone, the leaf nevertheless made its way to my mother, who by then had become used to my occasional antics. The flowers on a magnolia tree are of unbelievable splendor. Each flower is short-lived, the tree constantly sprouts new ones during the spring. They are of a creamy white, sometimes of a light ivory and they smell heavenly. These blossoms, about 20 cm in size, consist of three sepals and 9-12 petals, but the floral pieces are all identical. Botanists deem it a very primitive flower because, among other features such as a plethora of stamens and pistils, they lack such differentiation. Some of the oldest fossil flowers found by paleontologists are very much magnolia-like. When thinking of Adam and Eve having been expelled from Paradise, and the painter Douanier Rousseau must having contributed to this fantasy of mine, were they not clutching some magnolia seeds?