While surveying tree and plant nurseries in August 2004, Florence Gardens' landscape architect Christian Preus and I located a field of Green Giant Magnolias in George County, Miss. The grower had plans to clear the field and offered Florence Gardens the trees. We marked 40 of the most prime trees available and in February 2005 the magnolias were dug and transported to a holding field in Gulfport where they thrived while awaiting the completion of their permanent home in the center of Florence Gardens Boulevard.
As many of us will never forget, Hurricane Katrina washed ashore in the summer of 2005. In the weeks following August 29 the magnolias—all blown over from Katrina’s winds—sat in brackish water, sludge and debris from the surge of the Bayou Bernard Industrial Canal. For several months, the magnolias waited patiently while our energy was diverted to matters weightier and more urgent.
Not unlike the familiar ancient Live Oaks that lined Beach Boulevard, the Florence Gardens magnolias were battered and had lost their luster. For the months following the storm they fought to survive but remained weak and brittle, teetering on the edge of viability. When they finally received fresh water and some straightening treatment, they perked up and held on, almost signaling that they knew that better days were yet to come.
As if the trees had not faced enough threats to their survival, they endured the difficult transplant process in December of 2006, forced to adjust once more to new conditions, tougher soils with an altogether different chemical composition, and the sharing of nutrients with other plants. In Spring 2007 the magnolias managed to put out a few new leaves, but no major growth was evident. Their demise seemed a foregone conclusion.
In 2008 several steps were taken to wake these sleeping "Green Giants." An arborist recommended that we attempt to lower the soil’s pH to stimulate growth. Another tree expert injected a kind of "forest floor tea", packed with the nutrients found in decomposing leaf litter from the forest floor-- a process which also aerated the tightly compacted clay soil in which the trees had been planted. Our magnolias appreciated this kind of pampering and promptly shot out their first new branches in several years. Shunned by the original grower, enduring multiple relocations and transplants from one soil to another, surviving the hurricane-of-the-century and waiting through periods of necessary neglect followed by experimental rejuvenation techniques—this litany of challenges to their very existence notwithstanding, the survivor magnolias of Florence Gardens Boulevard had turned the proverbial corner.
As you drive up Florence Gardens Boulevard over the next couple of months and you see the beloved blooms of the magnolias’ flowers, roll your window down, drive a little slower and breathe deeply the familiar scent of Mississippi’s springtime. The smell may be even sweeter now that you know what they have been through and how they survived.