Botany Blueprint: The Southern Magnolia

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Specimen #14: Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)

he seeds were the first thing I noticed. I was collecting specimens in my Hollywood neighborhood when I came upon the crimson drops, scattered across the grey concrete like so many precious stones. Truly, to me, they were jewels.

They lay in the generous shadow of the tree from which they had fallen, the Southern magnolia (magnolia grandiflora), a specimen of quiet elegance and unexpected fruits. In the summer, creamy white flowers grow at the ends of branches. The sweet-smelling blossoms are shaped like saucers, and a stout spire of upper carpels and lower pollen-laden stamens grows at the center. After a warm season of beetle-pollination (as it is, and as it was: the ancient genus evolved before bees, so it has exchanged pollen with beetles for almost one hundred million years), the fuzzy, gently barbed fruit is swelling with bright red seeds.


Magnolia seeds are designed for the birds who disperse them. They are bright red, a color that attracts birds. And, before they fall to the ground, they are positioned to be seen. When the seed bursts from its tidy carpel dwelling, it hangs from a silken thread. Dangling from the fruit’s high branch, the seductive scarlet seed sways in the wind: a persistent advertisement to hungry birds.

The entire object—a magnolia seed case, with its ruby treasures—reminds me of a jeweled brooch, or pendant. And, in a design parallel of another kind, I’ve been told that magnolia fruits were once quite popular among young American boys in Southern states, who noted their structural resemblance to a hand grenade. Girls and their jewels, boys and their weapons, magnolias and their seeds—and the world plays on.