Spring Fling

Spring is the horniest season, horticulturally speaking. One day it’s nothing but dirt the color of an ashtray left unattended at a casino slot machine and the next—shazam! Nature is all heavy-breathing and green tumescence. Tightly coiled buds pulse, eager for release like sweaty teens awkwardly pawing each other on the basement couch. No judgment. Spring is all about the freaky fling, horticulturally speaking.

The randiest seasonal offender is, without a doubt, the magnolia tree. Even before they bloom in earnest, they get you with this come hither move. Their buds look like fingers drawn up together as if rubbing something achingly fine between their tips. And when they bloom in full: shameless. Creamy pink, white, or yellow tea-cup sized blossoms audaciously unfurl themselves on the edge of branches, gleeful in their wanton arbor lust. I do believe they would make even Monsieur Toulous-Lautrec blush.   

I had never really experienced magnolias until I moved close to Boston. What in the world would a tree synonymous with southern belles and sprawling Mississippi estates be doing in the almost unseasonably cold Northeast? The short answer: science. Though originally acclimated to the southern states when they were brought to America in the 1780s, magnolias have spread and bred up the northeast corridor from Virginia to Maine. Then again, these saucy minxes are wired for resilience. They’ve been around for more than 90 million years (so, only slightly younger than Keith Richards). They existed before bees. Though we’re rapidly approaching an alarming moment when we might make that statement true again, it’s still mind-bending to think about. The trees we see today form a direct line to a world that included duck-billed dinosaurs and, of course, Keith Richards (just ringing every drop from that joke). That’s some serious staying power. Maybe we’ve done at least a small thing right by our weary earth.

In the early-1960s, a woman named Laura Dwight began a beautification project in her Back Bay Boston neighborhood. What began with planting a handful of magnolias around Dwight’s street grew into a large-scale effort to plant the trees throughout the Back Bay neighborhood. As a result, for a precious few weeks each spring, the magnolias drape themselves over the doorways of stately Boston brownstones. They caress the sides of buildings. They lure you underneath splayed canopies, your face upturned like a hopeful young thing waiting to feel their soft pink lips graze your cheek. At least that’s been my experience. The magnolias are the joyful riot and the sweet exhale of Mardi Gras. They seem to show up every year just when you need them most. Attention must be paid.

I recently learned about floriography: the language of flowers. A cryptology crafted from genus and species, a conversation conducted through petal shape and color and variety. “There’s rosemary,” wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet, “that’s for remembrance.” The enduring powers of folklore and myth given to us in stems and leaves and roots and fruits to help us say what we can’t easily say ourselves. This seems worth hanging onto, especially in the spring when the harsh edges of the world start to soften, when our own selves become more pliable and we feel capable of gentleness again, and we find ourselves stopping in front of a luxurious cascade of pink and white and yellow blossoms that seem to murmur. And we find ourselves listening.  

What The Magnolia Knows

The first week when the world unraveled I went for a run as if it were any other March day. I pick up the bike path where it intersects with my favorite, go-to café. This was back in the care free days when our governor was restricting gatherings to 50 people or less. The café was open with a lot less life inside than there would be on a typical weekday morning. Just passing by, I could feel the tentativeness of the people inside, uncertain about what it meant to be doing something as ordinary as grabbing a cup of coffee while funnel clouds collected on the horizon.

Mid-March in New England can be a mean stretch of days. It’s not unusual to keep the snow boots by the door and the shovels within reach until April. That particular day felt pretty typical in that respect. It was grey and raw with a damp, gnawing chill impossible not to take personal regardless of what was unfolding in the world. I was still clinging to familiar routine, performing my own magical thinking: If it’s business as usual for me, the rest of the world will follow and maybe tomorrow we’ll go back to arguing about how to pay for health care and hate-watching The Bachelor in Paradise.

About a half a mile in, the path bends around two soccer fields, one on either side. A magnolia tree stands in the crux of that junction. For eleven months of the year it blends in with all the other trees near by with its ashy trunk and soft crown of green leaves. But for a few precious weeks each spring, the tree bursts in a squall of luscious white petals. It’s a narrow window to catch these show stealers, and if it’s really rainy, that window hinges close even faster.

I was guilty of passing the tree by without really seeing it for the first year I was jogging on the path until one day that spring when I rounded the corner and was met with a shock of white against the blue sky. I felt sheepish as I stopped and stood staring up through its clouds of blooms. The brown paper wrapping never tells the whole story.

Magnolias look delicate, but they are incredibly rugged, surviving for more than 20 million years. Over the course of centuries, horticulturists have bred and spread different kinds of magnolia from more temperate climates, where they originated, to more challenging environments like New England. These trees are not messing around.

It was way too early in March for magnolias to bloom. But as I came upon the tree that day, I saw that it was dotted with fat buds. Maybe we were all out of sync, but nature was keeping her faithful rhythm. A new season was getting ready to arrive. I stopped and walked around her. A few buds were gingerly loosening, the hint of white petals opening like palms coming apart after prayer. The rest of the tree was a twisted riot of branches and nodes, order masquerading as chaos. Like now.


If there ever was a time to stand nose to nose with the truth that we have so little control over (checks notes) not a damn thing, it’s now. The man-made world has jumped the tracks and a different reality will inevitably take hold. We can’t know what that will look like or how it will feel, but I hope our humanity plays a bigger part in it; I hope our compassion, empathy, and creativity will form the helix of its DNA. I rested my hand against the cold bark of the magnolia as if to say, “hang in there,” but then again she doesn’t need any encouragement from me. This ancient being is a pro at doing what matters: evolve, adapt, persist, and eventually flower. Nature is schooling us right now and we’d do ourselves a favor to pay attention and take notes as a new season gets ready to arrive.