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Plant Journeys blog #1 – Magnolia’s jade-like lustre 

Written by Dr Minna Törmä (Senior Lecturer in History of Art, University of Glasgow) 
Pink and white flowers turn upward from branches against a cloudy blue sky.
Magnolia flowers | Image: Shutterstock
Explore the wide variety of plants that have inspired Japanese art and objects on display at the Plant Journeys exhibition in Broughton House through this series of blog posts.

The ongoing exhibition at Broughton House, Plant Journeys, includes an impressive array of Japanese objects that were inspired by plants. These objects were collected by Edward Atkinson Hornel, a renowned ‘Glasgow Boy’, during his visits to Japan in 1894–5 and the 1920s. Dr. Minna Törmä, a dedicated researcher, delves into the world of these plants, examining them season by season. Through her exploration, she sheds light on the history of their introduction into Europe, their cultural significance in Eastern societies and the unique qualities that make each plant truly extraordinary.

Magnolia’s name pays tribute to Pierre Magnol, a physician and botanist who held the prestigious positions of Chair of Botany and Director of the Botanic Garden of Montpellier in 1694. Among the various magnolia species, Magnolia x soulangeana, which Hornel planted in his garden, is widely recognised and extensively cultivated. Alongside M. stellata, it is considered one of the most popular magnolias. M. x soulangeana is a hybrid of Magnolia denudata and M. liliflora, and was created around 1827 by Chevalier Etienne Soulange-Bodin, a former French cavalry officer.

Magnolia, a diverse genus, can be found in various locations across the world. Asian magnolias reached Great Britain later than their North American counterparts. The first temperate Asiatic species, Magnolia denudata (also known as the Chinese yulan or lily tree), was introduced by Sir Joseph Banks in 1780. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that it became commonly grown in European gardens. The credit for introducing M. liliflora (the purple magnolia or woody orchid) in 1790 goes to the third Duke of Portland, who discovered it cultivated in Japan. Similar to M. denudata, it had been growing in China for centuries. M. denudata has likely been cultivated in China since the 7th century. On the other hand, M. stellata is native to Japan and thrives in the mountains of southern Honshu.

In China, magnolia flowers are frequently likened to the beauty of white jade due to their similar opaque translucency. Chinese painters often depicted magnolia flowers, as seen in a handscroll by an unknown artist. Furthermore, delicate white porcelain cups were crafted in the shape of magnolia blossoms, as were cups intricately carved from rhino horn.

Magnolia does not, however, feature as frequently on Hornel’s Japanese souvenirs as, for example, chrysanthemum and cherry. While plant imagery can be found on kimono pattern books, Hornel’s collection also includes woodblock printed books featuring a variety of themes from sumo wrestling to porcelain production, as well as various plants like thistles and dandelions. In those pattern books, magnolia branches are found in one image in a vase with other flowers, such as hibiscus. Nevertheless, like in China, magnolia blossoms were also a popular decorative motif in Japan as can be seen on an inro (a small ornamental box with several compartments suspended from a girdle): in this one, the flowers are made of an inlaid shell.

Dr Törmä’s research can be explored further in a new exhibition, Plant Journeys: Stories of East Asian Plants in Hornel’s Home and Garden which runs from now until 31 October at Broughton House, Kirkcudbright.

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