From Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants In Your Garden by Noel Kingsbury:
“Named for French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638–1715), Magnolia is a famously old genus. It is also hard to define; current thinking suggests 200-plus species. Some botanists favour splitting it, others dumping the entire Magnoliaceae into it. The fossil record is rich, with family members dating back 98 million years, and Magnolia itself being of Cretaceous origin, i.e., contemporary with the dinosaurs but before bees: it is thought the first magnolias were pollinated by beetles.
“Magnolia flower buds are used for treating sinus problems in Chinese herbalism, and the bark… is prescribed for a wide range of conditions, although it does contains high levels of alkaloids and concerns have been raised over its safety. Flowers are used for flavouring, or at least ornamenting, certain Chinese teas, while buds are deep fried and eaten as a spring delicacy; they are somewhat tasteless, but the petals make an attractive addition to a salad….
“Wreaths of M. grandiflora foliage are traditional in the American South (they dry slowly and can be kept for months), and the flower, an emblem of the Confederate army in the U.S. Civil War, remains a potent symbol of the white American South…The 1989 film Steel Magnolias conjures up an image of something beautiful but also very tough; the tree symbolised the character of the women in the film….”
Despite making over sixty trips to Oakland Cemetery’s gardens over the past year, I hadn’t previously turned my camera toward any of the large magnolia trees growing on the property, some originally planted in the late 1800s and still thriving. They tower in height second only to the gigantic oak trees for which the property was originally named (see Early Landscapes: The Trees of Oakland), produce an enormous volume of blooms, and shed leaves as large as footballs that drop in a circle surrounding each tree’s trunk. The circles are as wide in diameter as the trees are tall, and as thick and bouncy as the beds of discarded pine needles you might find in any ancient forest.
Magnolia tree branches are some of the densest and most twisty-looking structures in the plant kingdom, I swear, making it a challenge to find a focal point for composing a photo. It’s also true that very few of their flowers are at a height I can get too without a ladder, which of course doesn’t fit in my photo bag. Nevertheless, with a zoom lens and the luck of finding a few branches hanging low to the ground (like the fourth photo below) I took a few dozen photos of the blooms that I could zoom in close enough to “fill the frame” — expecting I could figure out how to isolate the blooms from the entangled branches once I got at them in Lightroom.
Here are the first three, where I kept most of the leaves directly attached to the bloom stems in the frame, while blacking out all the rest.
Here’s one of the few flowers I found close enough to the ground (about five feet up) that I could get a shot that included the Internal structure of the flower, conveniently framed by an old and highly photogenic stone wall. If you’d like to get a closer look, click here.
Here are the last three, where I isolated just the flower — or, in the last photo, isolated the flower with a few of the leaves that (for reasons only the tree understands) were all reversed, showing the yellow-gold backs of the leaves instead of their dark green fronts.
Here are before-and-after versions of the seven photos, with most of the adjustments complete in both versions, but where I turned off the black background mask to show the blossoms in their original context: a mass of leaves and lots of blown-out highlights from sunlight filtering through the branches. It was a fun experiment to see if I could get results I wanted from the originals: creating the illusion that I’d taken macro photos of the magnolia blooms when, in reality, I used a zoom lens and stood about twenty feet from the trees to get these photos. It was also a lot of work — about two days of brushing black over the backgrounds and fine-tuning the mask — but I’m glad I gave it a shot.
Select any image in the gallery if you would like to compare the before and after versions in a slideshow.
Thanks for reading and taking a look!