Wednesday, June 18, 2014
There are two kinds of magnolias in DC: northern, boasting careless pink-tinted blossoms that appear in spring’s early riot, and southern, with huge waxy flowers that crest the wave of the first heat of June. My parents have a southern magnolia in their front yard. It’s nearly 80 feet tall, and, even though branches break off in every storm, it’s always been sturdy and strong. One of my earliest visceral memories is of drawing with chalk on our driveway with my sister, the fireflies just beginning to wink in the dusk and the heady scent of the magnolia blooms filling the air. I’ve always loved finding fallen petals in the grass beneath the tree and inhaling their lemony fragrance, but I learned the hard way that the flowers brown quickly when plucked. In the fall, after the blooms have passed, the tree produces pinecone-shaped fruits studded with red berries, perfect for childhood alchemy. I guess you could say I know southern magnolias.
Around the corner from my apartment, there’s a stretch of pavement that’s heavy with the scent of a southern magnolia. When the wind blows right, you can smell it a block away. Charlie and I walk down that street several times a day, and for the past month I’ve stopped to look up at the canopy above us, searching for the tree. I couldn’t see it amongst the other foliage; odd, I thought, as southern magnolias have massive oval leaves, leathery green on top and felted brown underneath, and they usually stand out. At first I convinced myself that I wasn’t smelling a southern magnolia at all. Once I'd noticed it, when the scent was sweeter, I thought it might be honeysuckle playing tricks on me. But then, as the lemoniness of it became stronger, I knew there must be a southern magnolia hiding. I’d pause at that stretch of pavement every time we walked down the street, searching in the leaves above me for the creamy blooms or the dark leaves but, time and time again, seeing nothing familiar.
Then, one day last week, a patch of white caught my eye against the sky. It was bright, brighter than I’d expected, and it was nestled in delicate light-green leaves. The tree didn’t look anything like my stately southern magnolias, but I reached up and caught the branch and pulled it down and inhaled and there it was – the glamorous, lemony-sweet scent of the southern magnolia. In appearance, it’s more similar to a northern magnolia, with its slender petals and pale leaves, but the fragrance is that of the southern magnolia, the tree I know and love.
Now when I walk down that block, I smile as soon as the scent of the magnolia reaches me on the wind. I don’t always look up, now that I know the tree is truly there, but I do always pause and take a deep breath, filling my lungs with the heady perfume of the blossoms. I feel like the magnolia is my secret; no one else has stopped to wonder where the seductive lemon scent is coming from, no one else has sought the blooms amongst the trees, no one else has compared each leaf to its neighbor to find the tree. I have. On that stretch of pavement, I waited and I searched and I discovered.
Now I know magnolias.