February 19, 2013

The Scent is Gone

When plant breeders make improvements to a plant and create new cultivars, it is assumed that the new attributes are added on to the original plant's qualities.

New cultivars are marketed as being just like the species, only with bigger flowers. Just like the original plant but a new dwarf size. The same as the common variety, but now an improved cold hardy version. It's all plusses, no takeaways.

Marketers never point out what gets lost in the breeding.

Case in point: sweetbay magnolia. Magnolia virginiana.

One of the key attributes of this small woodland native tree is its lemony scented flowers in June. Heavenly, or so I've read.

I wanted one, and I wanted that fragrance, especially as I planted it outside the bedroom window, to smell its lovely scent on a June morning when it flowered.

But I also wanted one that could take my winters, and was delighted to find this: ". . . and the cold hardiest variety is one developed by Jim Wilson called 'Moonglow'".

The description did not say " . . . but the fragrance was sacrificed in breeding this tree for cold tolerance."  Nope, it didn't say that.

I don't know for a fact that the scent was lost as a result of selecting for cold hardiness. No literature mentions that.

But I do know I have never smelled any fragrance. And I do know that a gardener I met last winter told me his sweetbay magnolias are highly fragrant, just delightful on a June day, but he had never heard of a 'Jim Wilson Moonglow' cultivar, he only had species sweetbay magnolias.

Rose gardeners know that scent was one of the first things to be bred out of heirloom roses in the quest for disease resistance or long bloom. I suppose it's logical to think the same has happened with this magnolia.

I still love this tree. Its glossy leaves flutter outside the window, showing their silvery backs. The flowers are creamy white and pretty, and the tree flowers at a very young age.
Sweetbay magnolia holds onto some of its foliage all winter, then in April and May it gets skimpy looking and looks unhealthy.  But it is just getting ready to shed the winter leaves and put on new foliage. May is not its season, but by June all is glorious again.


With its leaves on in winter it can suffer from heavy snow. This was the worst, when snow the consistency of cement fell in late October one year, bending this upright tree all the way to the ground. It was literally lying down on the ground, Talk about winter tolerance!  It sprang back up and survived.

The leaves are beautiful, the open habit does not block the window, the shape is perfect at the side of the house, and the flowers are so nice.

But it lost something on the way to becoming the perfect plant for my northern garden.

It kept all the great attributes of the species that the breeders wanted, plus it could handle a cold winter. But there was a loss in the process. It lost its scent.

(If any commenters want to write in that they grow this specific 'Moonglow' magnolia cultivar and it smells divine blooming in their gardens, please do so, but be aware that I  am going to kill myself if that is true.)

 

27 comments:

  1. Dear Laurrie,
    do not kill yourself, but it's said about 'Moonglow' magnolia cultivar:
    'sweetly fragrant (lemony), 9-12 petaled, creamy white, waxy flowers (2-3” diameter) appear in mid-spring (May-June)'
    http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/gardens-gardening.
    Are you sure you have grown this cultivar? There are some more magnolias that don't smell at all.

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    1. Nadezda, Nurseries mix up their plants all the time, and don't always label the cultivars correctly. I actually have two sweetbays that were labeled "Moonglow' -- one ordered online, and the other from a local nursery. Neither one has any scent!

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  2. Maybe the scent is so slight that you have to wait until it is huge so it has many blooms to concentrate the scent so you can smell it. It sounds like a delightful tree. I have a friend that has a the original. I don't ever notice the scent on it. Hmmmmm Maybe it is just this tree??

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    1. Lisa, I do wonder if size and maturity will bring more scent. The gardener who said his species sweetbay magnolias smelled divine had a stand of several of them and they were mature.

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  3. Really good post Laurrie. You are so right that what is gone is rarely shown. Roses that have the scent bred out from them really make me shy away from them. The scent is why I like roses. The insects that pollinate probably don't recognize these roses. The other factor breeders do expose is making plants sterile. That is great for homeowners to avoid the mess and smell of rotting fruit, but the plants are often of less value to insects. I say less because some plants like sterile pears are a bees dream in early spring, and the pollinators are busy collecting.

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    1. Donna, thanks. I am always amazed to hear shoppers at the garden center ask for plants "that don't attract bugs" or for flowers "that won't bring in bees". What?? I know they want trouble free, pest free stuff without stinging insects, but it misses the whole concept of gardening by a mile!

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  4. Hi Laurrie! Your tree is beautiful and maybe, like Lisa said above, when it matures it will have some scent. It must have really good,deep roots to be able to bend over to the ground in the snow and still be okay.

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    1. Christy, I was amazed that the tree could lie down like that. Once established, magnolias do have wide reaching roots (I tried to move a young one once, and the roots were immense). Also, this young sweetbay is pliant, with bendy branches -- that all helped it survive being smushed by cement!

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  5. I totally agree - so many of the new cultivars lose some of their charm in exchange for cold hardiness or whatever new trait they are trying to achieve. Having said that, I've noticed that scent is highly subjective, and that what is fragrant to one person is unscented to another, especially if it's a very delicate smell. My fothergilla is like that - my husband can smell it, I can't.

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    1. Sarah, I really have to get my nose into the little bottlebrushes of my fothergilla to smell it, but it is there if I take the trouble. Fothergillas don't scent the air around, though.

      You're right that fragrance is subjective. I cannot tolerate lilacs at all, and took a big one out that was near our porch because I couldn't stand the smell for two weeks in May! Yet people have loved lilacs for centuries for their fragrance.

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  6. Laurrie, I'll just say not *all* the fragrance was bred out of my two Virginia magnolias, and since I don't know if they're 'Moonglow', step away from the weapon.

    I did expect more fragrance from whatever cultivar my trees are. But I take solace and pleasure from the strong, sweet, lemony scent of my Magnolia grandiflora 'Bracken's Brown Beauty'.

    Get yourself one of these, and pitch the scentless ones. And if you fear BBB might not survive cold, mine, in an elevated microclimate near you, never faltered.

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    1. Lee, I have talked with Kevin at Silver Spring about getting a BBB magnolia next spring.

      The only one I have seen is yours, and it was beautiful --- very open branched. The pictures I see online are of a dense, dark evergreen column, with rich mahogany leaf colors but not graceful, kind of tubby in fact. Does our northern location (or shade?) make it more open? That's what I love about the sweetbay, it is open and loose-branched.

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    2. Good for you. Hope you love yours as much as I do mine. Laurrie, it won't surprise you to learn that the open form comes from my pruning. I sacrificed some bloom possibilities, but I needed more grace. Seems you will, too. I wish you an early spring and happy planting.

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  7. Totally agree with you, Laurrie.

    I was just reading about the history of the banana. (In a book called 'Banana', not surprisingly!)

    Bananas have been bred for many attributes - uniformity, speed of ripening, resistance to bruising, resistance to disease (really the key factor) - but according to the author of the book, the flavor of our standard Cavendish banana is far from the best. So again, it's hard to win 'em all. You can bred for flavor or scent or cold hardiness or disease resistance or size or floral display etc. etc. but you probably can't have it all.

    (The Rolling Stones said it first and said it better!)

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    1. Aaron, Wait, I thought in the garden I actually could have it all . . . not really of course.

      I remember strawberries from my youth that tasted so wonderful, but the big watery red globes that are grown and sold now, even the native ones grown right here in town, just taste like nothing. But they keep and store well! I have to say bananas are pretty tasteless too!

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  8. Fragrance is so important in the garden, it's very sad when a species loses this quality as it "improves". At least there were some real improvements in your magnolia, very often the improvements are no improvement at all.

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    1. Jason, I do treasure this magnolia, so it is pleasing in lots of ways and it does handle our awful winters well. I have other fragrant plants, so I must be satisfied with that.

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  9. I agree that the tree is a perfect choice size and shape wise for the spot. If the scent typically only lasts two weeks in June I'd be tempted to leave it for the ornamental interest it appears to provide the other 50 weeks of the year.

    My friend in Wallingford has a good sized Magnolia grandiflora (not BBB) doing well in an unprotected low spot in her garden. You have to stick you face into the flowers but it does have nice scent. Form is much more broad though.

    Interesting that your tree responded so well to the October snow storm. I have Magnolia 'Sunspire' (yellow flowers and fastigiate form). It also took a snow load during that storm without losing any branches. However, the branches bent out and never snapped completely back so now it has lost part of it's fastigiate form and has somewhat of an ungainly appearance. Last season I pruned a few of them off but it still looks twisted. Not sure what I'm going to do yet.

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    1. Sue, I do like this tree where it is, and you're right about the scent being so brief, even if I could smell it. My sweetbay will be a keeper.

      Too bad about your fastigate magnolia -- is there a way to do even more drastic pruning and give it at least an "artistic" shape? My yellow flowered magnolia 'Elizabeth' took a beating in that storm, and had branches either snapped off or bent down the way you describe, and it did not recover the way the more bendy sweetbay did.

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  10. I have no experience with the sweetbays as they aren't reliably hardy here. I do know that my friend who is in SE Wisconsin has a few and he says there is a light lemony fragrance in his large species plant but it's not what he'd consider pronounced. I'm thinking that 'Moonglow' was originally called 'Jim Wilson' and my friend's plant of that variety has yet to bloom. This might well speak to buying trees when in bloom to be certain of the fragrance. I know that plants such as Chionanthus virginicus can vary from plant to plant, but I don't know that that applies to magnolias.
    I have close to 60 magnolias in my yard and of over 40 cultivars... the most fragrant is "Daybreak" and it's a gorgeous hot pink in bloom... quite unlike the majority of precocious magnolias. The cross was made by August Kehr. Daybreak is now showing up in a number of new cultivars being bred by my friend Dennis Ledvina here in Wisconsin. The exciting thing about these new hybrids is zone 4 hardiness and extended bloom periods of four to six weeks. I enjoyed your post today and thank you for vising my site! Larry

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    1. Larry, Your magnolias are spectacular -- I've seen the pictures! You have quite a collection. I hope Daybreak provides its wonderful fragrance as it is bred with new cultivars!

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  11. You bring up a really great point about marketing and breeding. We never think to ask what got lost along the way. Sorry to find out you had to discover this lost attribute the hard way.

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    1. Marguerite, I keep hoping it's a maturity thing, and my tree will develop fragrance as it ages!

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  12. My sweet bay magnolia produces blooms with a wonderful lemony scent, and I am sorry you are missing it! You are so right about plants losing their scent through hybridization. I think my tree is the species. Do you know how large your cultivar will get? Mine has grown to more than twenty feet tall and about that wide. I am not sure I would want it so close to a house.

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    1. Deborah, How I would love to smell that lemony scent. The gardener I met last winter said his were that fragrant too, and we think his are species plants. I am expecting my tree to be 15 feet high or so, but remain narrow. If it gets 20 feet wide it is indeed too close to the house!

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  13. Yes, of course we only hear the positive side of what plant breeders do. For flowers it is a pity but just think of what they've done to vegetables - it's not the perfume that's gone its the FLAVOUR!. Christina

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    1. Christina, you are so right, the flavor of the vegetables and fruits I ate as a child are not even close to what we can get now. Bleeah.

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