The saucer magnolia is actually a hybrid plant originating in France and was initially bred by Étienne Soulange-Bodin, a cavalry officer under Napoleon. The parent species, however, are native to China and have been cultivated in China and Japan for centuries. The Yulan magnolia, one of these parent species, has a particularly interesting significance and has been cultivated since the Tang Dynasty in 618 CE. The Yulan magnolia flowers served as a symbol of purity, were planted in the emperor’s garden and outside monasteries, and were widely celebrated on embroidery, porcelain, and scrolls. The petals are a delicacy when lightly fried in flour. The Yulan magnolia was the first magnolia to be introduced to the West from Asia. Magnolias became more frequent in American landscapes around the 1940s.
Magnolia are among the most ancient of flowering plants, having existed for over 95 million years. Because they existed before many of the more complex pollinators, such as birds, butterflies, and bees, had even evolved, beetles serve as the main pollinators. Thus, magnolia trees attract beetles with their strong fragrance and bright, vibrant flowers.
Saucer magnolias are much beloved decorative trees and are widely planted throughout the United States.