Embracing Softness with Sweetbay Magnolia
“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
I’ve spent the past few weeks visiting a group of Sweetbay Magnolia almost daily. One thing that stands out to me is their softness. The petals are soft, supple, thick & waxy. The buds have tiny little hairs that feel like fur. The gray-green leaves have soft undersides. Even the newer branches have bark that feels soft to the touch. They seem to invite gentle stroking. I make an offering to the trees then sit with them a while before asking permission to collect a few petals. It’s been a pure, comforting joy and reprieve to spend time with these trees in the midst of so much hardness in the world. It’s been a particularly tough week. I’m grateful for these moments of softness & sweetness and wishing for each of you moments of softness, as well.
Here’s a meditation on softness that Sweetbay inspired, as well as a short profile on Sweetbay Magnolia:
Plant names: Sweetbay Magnolia, Laurel Magnolia, Swamp Magnolia
Botanical name: Magnolia virginiana
Characteristics: Evergreen in places with milder winters, semi-evergreen elsewhere; simple, alternate leaves; perennial
Where they’re native to & who they’re in community with: native to the lowlands and swamps of the Atlantic coastal plain of the eastern U.S. I’ve noticed dragonflies on the branches, tiny insects inside the flowers, bees, squirrels and birds also hanging out with Sweetbay.
Lore/traditional uses: Native Americans used a concoction of the bark to treat fevers and rheumatism. The fruit was used for coughs and chest ailments.
The petals are edible and people do things like pickle them. Always, be aware of where you’re harvesting from to feel confident that they haven’t been treated or exposed to excessive contaminants.
Ecological considerations: It was introduced into cultivation in the 1680s. I pick only petals and leave the center part (multiple pistils that will develop into an “aggregate follicle” fruit with seeds) so that the tree can fulfill its reproductive cycle. I only take petals from a few flowers on lower branches and like to harvest them after they’ve had a day in the sun, even if I don’t get the strongest scent.
Scent profile: notes of vanilla, lemon, occasional whiffs of honeysuckle and rose; strongest scent on just opening blooms; the scent evolves quickly as the flower opens; creamy, sweet, fresh & light floral
In perfumery: I’m currently making an enfleurage of the petals to make what will eventually be an absolute.