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Plants & Gardens Blog

Saying Goodbye to the ‘Elizabeth’ Magnolia

In August, Tropical Storm Isaias ripped through Brooklyn Botanic Garden. One of the casualties left in its wake was the ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia tree in Magnolia Plaza.

The ‘Elizabeth’ hybrid itself—Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’—is special. For starters, it’s one of the signature hybrids that came out of BBG’s plant breeding program at the Kitchawan Research Center in Ossining, New York. As the first precocious yellow-flowering magnolia ever bred and introduced, its significance extends beyond Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

The ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia in full bloom one last time, last April when the Garden was closed due to the pandemic. Photo by Steven Severinghaus.

Introduced in 1977, ‘Elizabeth’ got its start back in 1956 when Dr. Evamaria Sperber, plant breeder and cofounder of BBG’s plant breeding program, crossed the Asian yulan magnolia (Magnolia denudata) with our North American native cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata). That cross yielded 71 seeds and ultimately, six mature trees. In 1977, one of those trees was selected for its precocious and profusely blooming lemon-chiffon flowers. That selection was patented and registered as Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’, named in honor of Elizabeth Van Brunt, a BBG benefactor.

The tree’s yellow blossoms in full glory. Photo by Steven Severinghaus.

That same year, Dr. Lola Koerting, then director of BBG’s breeding program, presented at the Magnolia Society’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, and showed, for the first time, images of that precocious, yellow-flowering magnolia, the ‘Elizabeth’. Nothing like it had been seen before.

Many magnolia breeders of the time were in attendance, and everyone was completely awestruck. That moment has been described as a milestone in magnolia development, showing the world the possibilities of using the relatively “non-showy” M. acuminata to extend both the range of colors and hardiness of hybrid ornamental magnolias. (BBG had, in fact, already called attention to M. acuminata, almost 10 years earlier, with the introduction of M. × brooklynensis ‘Evamaria’ in 1968, the first introduction and successful cross between an Asian and an American species, but that’s an entirely different story….)

In 2017, up close. Photo by Blanca Begert.

The ‘Elizabeth’ that came down last year was planted in 1979 and was one of only two in the Garden. It came directly from Kitchawan. It was a true original. Let us rejoice in the memory of our ‘Elizabeth’, the seasons of glorious, showy blossoms, the less glorious seasons of late frosts, and all the lovely variations in between.

Sunrise doesn’t last all morning. A cloudburst doesn’t last all day. All things must pass.—George Harrison

Editor’s note: The Garden has one additional specimen of the ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia, planted in 1982 and also from Kitchawan, in the Osborne Garden. Watch for it to bloom in mid April.

Wayken Shaw is the curator of BBG's Magnolia Plaza, Lily Pool Terrace, and Annual and Perennial Borders.

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