Before a plant crosses paths with a taxonomist to be assigned a binomial name, it already is known and referred to by a common name or two divined by ordinary folks’ observations.
Plant names often are intriguingly descriptive. Such is the case with the cucumbertree magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), No. 38 on Mizzou Botanic Garden’s Jesse Hall Tree Trail Loop.
A few mature cucumbertrees grow in the area north of MU’s Geological Sciences building in McAlester Park, aka, Peace Park.
All magnolias bear seedcone fruits, and the cucumbertree’s early green, nubby versions were reminiscent of a cucumber in the eyes of Europeans who discovered them growing in the New World.
The tree’s “cucumbers” grow 2 to 3 inches, eventually turning red-brown and taking on a definite science fiction-y look in late summer and early fall. When fully mature, they split open and dangle their red seeds on threads.
Both the fruits and seeds are a palatable food source to a variety of animals. And while they are not poisonous to humans, they are not regularly on the menu in this country.
An ancient family of trees, magnolias are considered the first blooming plants. Fossil records show that millions of years ago, the tree’s ancestors could be found growing in Europe, North America, Asia and even in Greenland and Siberia.
Now the tree’s natural range is limited to East and Southeast Asia, the eastern U.S., and South America to the West Indies. It is thought that this “disjunct distribution” of DNA-related trees was caused by continental drift.
Eight species of magnolias occur naturally in the U.S., but only the cucumbertree is native to Missouri. It is cultivated statewide, but wild populations were limited to areas in the southern part of the state, including Crowley’s Ridge, which the Missouri Department of Conservation notes is one of the “most unique biological communities in the state.”
A long, narrow, hilly ridge, it is thought to have originally been an island between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, but as the rivers changed course over thousands of years, the ridge became an erosional remnant, now surrounded by the Mississippi Alluvial Plain.
Most magnolias are cultivated for their spectacular blooms. But the cucumbertree’s 3-inch, yellow-green blooms that appear during spring are not its most prized feature. It is fast-growing, and it’s the largest of the native magnolia species, reaching a height of 80 feet.
Its 6-inch leaves are smaller than those of its relatives but is an exceptionally fine shade tree — the best and the hardiest among them — with an attractive, mature symmetrical shape and often-pleasant gold fall color.
Cucumbertree magnolias were first described in 1736 by Virginia botanist John Clayton.
In 1802, while collecting seeds in Pennsylvania to meet European demand for the hardy “new” magnolia species, French Naturalist Francois Michaux wryly observed that the tree’s cucumbers were used to infuse whisky with a “pleasant bitter” said to prevent fever, which he doubted would give water the same qualities.
Various parts of magnolia trees have traditionally been used in regional cuisines and therapeutics. Flowers from some species are pickled and used as an aromatic spice in Europe and Asia. And the young leaves and buds of the whitebark magnolia (M. hypoleuca) are eaten as vegetables by the Japanese. When mature, the tree’s leaves are stuffed and grilled.
Both the buds and bark of magnolias have been ingredients in Chinese medicine for thousands of years and also are components in Japanese therapies. There is evidence that indigenous Americans used nearly all parts of wild magnolias to treat a variety of ailments.
Magnolia bark contains the phytochemicals magnolol and honokiol, which are historically credited with having a counteractive effect against a wide range of maladies. These are claims that have a toehold in modern medicine.
In recent animal trials, these compounds have reduced stress, anxiety, sleeplessness and have contributed to weight loss. They additionally have been shown to improve digestion and gut health and further exhibit anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Cucumbertree wood is heavier, harder and stronger than its relative yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), or tulip tree. The two are used interchangeably for furniture, doors, blinds, siding, boxes and crates. Cucumbertree does not have the high fuel value of Missouri’s denser hardwoods.
Commercially, hybrid crosses of cucumbertree magnolia and the Yulan magnolia (C. denudata) have produced some gorgeous cultivars, including the heralded Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ with its beautiful, deep yellow flowers.
There is a show-stopper specimen — No. 30 on the Mizzou Botanic Gardens Memorial Union Tree Trail loop — on the east side of MU’s A.P. Green Chapel.
Jan Wiese-Fales writes about the Mizzou Botanic Garden. Her columns appear twice monthly in the Missourian.