Magnolias and Creating Floral Art

When I was a child, I would mark the arrival of spring by the early bulbs that pushed up from the cold earth and by the magnolia blossoms which arrived in a burst of pink glory. I grew up on Staten Island where there was a dearth of gardens and an abundance of homes built close together. Our small house had a narrow side yard that opened up to a tiny plot of land. My dad, with little foresight but much love of beautiful things, planted a magnolia and a crab apple in our small space. If you can imagine, a city home, tiny yard and 2 large flowering trees. I had no love for that magnolia - the blooms were a nuisance,  lasting just a day or two until the wind and harsh April showers tore them up and scattered their pink petals across the grass where I played.

I didn’t care for beauty that was delicate and weak. What was the point of those flowers if they were so easily swallowed up in a spring rain?  Their impermanence was a message that nothing lasts. I preferred the persistence of the daffodils and crocuses, the flowers popping their heads through the snow and hard earth. There was strength in longevity. By the time they faded to make way for showier flowers, I’d grown used to their beauty and forgotten they were even there.

The flower that smiles to-day

To-morrow dies;

All that we wish to stay

Tempts and then flies.

-Percy Byshe Shelly

I discovered a love of gardening many years later, but planting a magnolia never crossed my mind. I lived in an older neighborhood filled with beautiful flowering trees and I’d sometimes pass a magnolia tree on my walk home from the bus stop. In early April,  the pink blossoms of weeping cherries arrived at the same time as the magnolia flowers. That is, if the magnolia bloomed at all. Every spring their weakness was on display. One year a frost snapped the buds. Another year we had a warm winter and they bloomed early before dying in the cold snap that followed. And when they did bloom, the flowers were gone in a day or two, fading to mud brown and scattering across the lawn like ashes.

I had children. I moved further out to the country. I opened and closed a business and learned a hard truth --  nothing lasts forever. There weren’t many magnolias in my new town and the few I encountered were in large gardens. Maybe because the winters seemed longer,  I began to appreciate the showy blossoms of the magnolia as the first real sign of spring. There is hope in the expectation of their return, their perfumed scent carrying spring along a breeze. Sometimes they die before blooming. But most years, they arrive, they thrive and then they wither to glossy green leaves. And nature, as it moves through the wonder of each season, reminds us how easy it is to mistake being delicate for being weak.

When I consider every thing that grows

Holds in perfection but a little moment.

-Shakespeare

As time passes, as our faces gain wrinkles and our hair grays, it becomes easier to understand that all beauty is a race against time. With age, I’ve gained clarity. To appreciate a magnolia and all flowers, is to accept that their very nature is transient -- what is here today, may not be tomorrow - and that’s what makes them so valuable to us. There is strength in the will to return, year after year, setbacks be damned.  It doesn’t matter that the blooms last but a few days. What matters is that they arrive, their presence is acknowledged and then they pass on, to dust and to dirt.