Author Ann Patchett on the classic. 

Jean Allsopp

It’s thought that magnolia trees were here before bees. Sit with that for a while. Those enormous white blossoms, which open farther and flatter than seems decent at times, evolved to attract beetles—the pollinating precursors to bees. Get up close to one of the flowers, and look inside. The petals could be used for ice-cream scoops, teacups, a boat for a family of mice. If you’re thinking of gathering a bouquet, bring a hacksaw.

There are over 200 species of magnolia trees and probably half a dozen of them are represented on my street. We have a pair of saucer magnolias in the front yard, delicate trees that are shaped like crepe myrtles and smell like roses. My husband planted a ‘Little Gem’ in the backyard years ago, and now it threatens to take out our garage. Depending on the species, planting a magnolia tree can be like bringing home an adorable bear cub. You need to think about where things are going to end up.

If you’re very lucky, it could end up like my friend Hope’s tree two blocks from here. It’s over 50 feet tall and about the width of a two-car garage. The flowers smell like lemons. The foliage starts at the ground and forms a solid wall all the way up. The new spring leaves near the bottom are bright green with velvet backs, while the higher ones are older and darker, more like shingles. 

I can push my way through and step inside the “Church of Nature,” standing upright among the branches, some of which rest on the ground while others reach out to the sides. The main trunk splits into several arms, and runners (just as slim and straight as fishing poles) shoot up all around me. The ground beneath my feet is covered with decades of duff—discarded leaves and red-seeded pods in varying layers of decay. No one rakes beneath a tree like this. The light can hardly find its way in.

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If ever I were inclined to run away from home, this is where I would go, down the street and into the leaves like in Alice Through the Looking Glass. After all, this is a tree that could always find a little extra space for a guest among the chipmunks and the owls. Magnolias are not only sturdy and magnificent, they are welcoming.

Ann Patchett’s latest novel, The Dutch House, is available now.

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