Everyone makes decisions about a life’s work. Whether they think it through, or not, decisions get made. As a landscape designer, I realized part of my life’s work was to plant magnolias-all manner of magnolias, every where it made good design sense to plant them. I am a designer who in part came to design via a love for plants. Plants are part of the vocabulary that helps give voice to a point of view. Every designer needs heart, soul, and nerve-but they also need language.
But back to magnolias. There is a history to my love for them. My design mentor Al Goldner had a big love for plants, but also a penchant for dragging along, and provoking his young staff, with beautiful plants. He took me to the garden of Phil Savage 35 years ago, give or take. I have not one shred of memory of the visit. But thanks to a thoughtful niece, I visited there last spring, after his death.
Phil Savage, lived on almost 8 acres-most of which reflects a lifetime growing and hybridizing magnolias. He also grafted magnolia cuttings onto ash tree root stock-these trees are 70 feet tall on his property, as we speak. He hybridized “Yellow Butterflies”; when the spring weather is perfect, it is a dream come true in bloom. Later, it is sturdily and robustly green. His property had magnolias of a size, with flowers in colors, I have never seen-yellow, peach, orangy pink. It was like a visit to another planet. But no, just a visit to a man who knew and lived his life’s work.
I have a magnolia in my yard, which I inherited. It looks like no magnolia I know. It is the first thing to make a move, in the spring. I have a supposedly “hardy” hybrid of Magnolia Grandiflora tucked into a corner, hoping nature won’t notice. In pure envy of the British, I am growing an arbor of Magnolia “Galaxy” over my driveway. My neighborhood dating from the 1930’s is peopled with Magnolia Soulangiana trees of immense size-mostly poorly placed. Plants have a will to live, thank God. The day they drop their petals, one could weep.
The point of this-you don’t need to know the words magnolia soulangiana. But you may need that tree somewhere in your landscape that is asking for bold form, flowers and leaves-so put its image in your design dictionary. If I have my way, my life’s work will make for a whole blizzard of giant petals, dropping softly, every year, on one particular spring day.