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25 Apr
Wed / 2012

The Magnolia: An American Garden Icon

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Earlier this month, the Rienzi and Bayou Bend Book Club read Founding Gardeners, a book that examines gardening, a common passion of four of America’s founding fathers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison. Written by Andrea Wulf, the book incorporates political history with that of nature, and how these four men with a common goal but differing means shared a great interest for all things botanical. In particular the book looks at the transfer of seeds from North to South, East to West, and America to Europe.

Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison all exchanged seeds, gardening practices (Adams was famous for his research into manure as a fertilizer), and discoveries. The first chapter of the book, devoted to Washington, describes how he wanted a truly American garden, with examples of plants from different areas of the United States. According to Wulf:

Washington did not distinguish between the rare and the common. He did not care, for instance, that tulip poplars grew in almost every forest of the thirteen states. He cherished their upright white-orange flowers as much as the rarer satin blossom of the "Magnolia grandiflora," which was native to the Southern States only. (page 26)

Post-read, I decided to take a stroll in Rienzi’s garden. Although Rienzi houses European decorative arts on the inside, the gardens themselves are distinctively American. Designed by the Harvard-educated landscape architect Ralph Ellis Gunn, the grounds incorporate formal gardens as well as elements of the natural Texas landscape and native Texas plants. Rienzi’s gardens include many Southern flowering and non-flowering plants, such as azaleas, camellias, paperwhites, hyacinth, roses, white oak trees, and fringe trees.

As I meandered through Rienzi’s garden, I came upon a Magnolia grandiflora. The Magnolia grandiflora is commonly known as the Southern Magnolia. It is found in the Southeastern US, often near boggy, marshy areas, making Rienzi’s proximity to Buffalo Bayou an ideal location. The Magnolia grandiflora is an evergreen tree, with lovely large white flowers. They have several cultivars, including Little Gem Magnolias that are also found on Rienzi’s property.

Rienzi’s magnolia trees are just beginning to bloom—check out the pictures below that I took earlier this week. Or stop by the Rienzi gardens to see them in person!




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About Casey Monahan

Casey Monahan

Casey Monahan joined Rienzi as education assistant in 2010. She received her B.A. in art history and history from the College of the Holy Cross, and her M.A. in art history from the University of Houston. At Rienzi, the Massachusetts native works with docents, tours, and other public programs. 

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