During the steamiest days of summer, when most other trees are resolutely green and flower-free, Magnolia grandiflora opens her luminous petals. They are heavily scented. Displayed against a backdrop of moodily dark leaves, their effect is captivating. Southern bay’s glossy, evergreen leaves, voluptuous flowers, and vividly ornamental seedpods are reasons enough to grow this tree. But there is more: M. grandiflora has been used extensively as an Indigenous medicine, and its leaves and pungent petals are edible. I use them as a herb and spice. And as an edible plate.
Intrigued? You have reason to be.
Photography by Marie Viljoen
Magnolia grandiflora is native to the Southeastern and Gulf Coast states of the United States. Its natural range suggests that it can only thrive in regions with mild winters (and it does, of course).
Fortunately, hardier cultivars have been developed that ensure that this glorious tree can be grown from USDA zones 6 – 9, in full sun, with plenty of moisture.
Southern bay went international in the 18th century, entering the nursery trade in Britain in the early 1700s. The cover of Andrea Wulf’s book The Brother Gardeners – Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession (the narrative of how North American plants traveled to Europe) is illustrated with an engraving of M. grandiflora, a specimen of which was sent to the artist, Mark Catesby, in 1736.
Where I live, in Brooklyn, NY, the first flowers appear in June, around the time that tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipfera, a relative of magnolia) drop their last green-and-orange, cupped blossoms. Spring is still in the air. Months later, in tropical August, the dinner-plate sized magnolia blooms are still opening.
The ancient Magnolia genus evolved before bees existed, and the flowers are designed to be pollinated by beetles. When it is fully open, the huge flower drops all its pink-tipped anthers at once.
When the petals drop, the flower’s energy turns towards the central, cone-like structure where the seeds begin to ripen.
The ripe, scarlet seeds studding the velvety follicetum (an aggregate fruit, botanically) are strikingly beautiful and intensely ornamental.
The bright seeds keep their color indefinitely indoors. On the tree they also provide food for critters like possums and raccoons.
M. grandiflora (and other American magnolia species) has a history of Native American medicinal use that far precedes its botanical classification and naming (by Carl Linneaus, rather predictably). In East Asia, those native species of magnolia have been used in similar medicinal ways, with a focus on the bark for medicinal use. The leaves and flowers of native Asian species are also valued highly for flavoring seasonal traditional dishes like hoba-zushi and hoba miso (hoba refers to the magnolia leaf).
All magnolia petals are edible and they vary in pungency, depending on the species. Southern bay is among the strongest and most perfumed I have tasted, possibly because its petals are substantial and thick. It is a delicious summer cocktail garnish.
The flavor of Magnolia grandiflora petals is a potent combination of fresh ginger and galangal, cloves, menthol, with a seam of bitterness and something aromatically…magnolia-ish. But utterly recognizable, once you are familiar with it. I appreciate the bitter element to the flavor, although some may not. It is tempered by cooking.
As plates or spoons, M. grandiflora petals come into their own as show-stopping and flavorful receptacles for salads, ceviches, poke, or sticky rice. (You might want to take only a couple of bites out of your plate, to keep the flavors balanced.)
Cooked, I deploy the petals in the way I might use fresh ginger. In June I make a tangy chicken braise with the last local rhubarb, the first southern magnolia flowers, and unripe grapes.
Black Currant Slaw in Magnolia Petals
Makes 10 portions
Black currants are briefly in season when southern bay is in bloom: Lipstick pink and ivory—it’s very exciting. The cabbage and fennel are quick-pickled, leaving them pliable, but crunchy, and bright with flavor.
- 4 1/2 oz finely sliced red cabbage (about 1/4 of a small head)
- 1/2 fennel bulb, shaved lengthways
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- 1 Tablespoon black currant jam
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon chile flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon black sesame seeds, toasted
- 8 Magnolia grandiflora petals*
*Magnolia petals oxidize when cut. If you don’t like the ends’ browning, rub them with a cut lemon.
In a bowl combine the vegetables with all the ingredients except the sesame seeds. Toss well with your hands. Cover, and transfer to the refrigerator to chill for 1 hour, tossing one more time at the 30-minute mark. Just before serving, arrange a small tangle of slaw in the center of each magnolia petal. Top with toasted black sesame seeds. Pick up, fold, and chew.
For more of Marie’s recipes, see:
- Pawpaw: A Native Fruit that Tastes Like the Tropics
- Garden to Bar: A Summer Cocktail Starring Homemade Elderberry Syrup
- Edible Nasturtiums: Pretty Powerhouses of Flavor