Who would have suspected back in the winter that a Magnolia Study Day planned for May 5th in the Chicago area would have missed the main window of opportunity to see magnolia flowers? An unusually mild Northern Illinois winter followed by an early spring meant there were few magnolias in bloom by the time we held the Magnolia Study Day at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL.
But that setback didn’t squash the enthusiasm in the room. Study Day participants gathered in the Arboretum’s Sterling Morton Library, designed by noted Chicago architect Harry Weese. The Library holds diverse collections exploring botany, urban forestry, horticulture, forestry and conservation, botanical art, landscape design, natural history, and geology – including 5,000 volumes of rare books dating back to 1482 and 12,000 items in the art collection.
Participants whetted their appetite with a few glorious illustrations of magnolias, including one by Georg Dionysius Ehret, one of the great botanical artists of the 18th century. Ehret was friends with Swedish botanist Linnaeus, which meant Ehret was well-placed to capture new species soon after they arrived on the continent from abroad. The flower details in Ehret’s drawings show that he was heavily influenced by Linnaeus’ new system of classifying plants according to the physical similarities between their reproductive parts, rather than how people used plants.
The main portion of the Study Day program was presented by Kunso Kim, Head of Collections and Curator at The Morton Arboretum, and a member of the Magnolia Society. Prior to coming to The Morton Arboretum, Kunso worked at Norfolk Botanical Garden in Virginia and Chollipo Arboretum in South Korea, where he developed a passion for magnolias. Kunso has participated in several plant explorations in Korea, China, and in the Appalachian and Ozark mountains in the United States. The Morton Arboretum holds significant collections of oaks, elms, maples, crabapples, and magnolias.
Many people might think it is too cold to grow magnolias in Northern Illinois but in fact our collection has over 60 different types of magnolias, many of which are so unique that Morton Arboretum was selected as one of only 14 institutions in the U.S. to participate in the North American Plant Collections Consortium Magnolia Collection.
Some of these magnolias are rare botanical taxa, so participants were able to see magnolias not often found in the trade. Following the indoor slideshow tour, the group stepped outside with Kunso to see some of the magnolias on the Arboretum’s 1,700 acres. Highlights of the day included M. ashei, M. hypoleuca, M. officinalis var. biloba, M. macrophylla, M. pyramidata, M. sieboldii, M. acuminata var. subcordata, and M. ‘Elizabeth’.
For the home gardener in the Midwest, The Morton Arboretum’s Plant Clinic offers a list of recommended magnolias hardy to the Northern Illinois climate: