Magnolia trees would do well to befriend beetles but leave bees behind.

Why should magnolias favor one insect over the other? It’s a question of co-evolution. Bees were not around when magnolias first developed. In fact, they are Johnny-come-latelies, evolutionarily speaking.

Beetles beat out the bees in the history books because beetles evolved simultaneously with flowering plants. This evolution occurred many millions of years ago, taking place earlier than the development of their buzzing brethren. 

A prime, or primeval, partner of the ancient beetles was the magnolia tree. Plants in the magnolia group were ready-made to buddy up with beetles; just look at their fine features to see why the two species synch.

Magnolias lack true petals and sepals. Instead, they have tepals — leaf-like structures that take the place of petals and sepals. Nor do magnolias have true nectar. Instead, protein-rich pollen provides the nutrition that they (and the beetles) need. Beetles are able to walk and feed on the magnolia’s sturdy tepals, which can hold their heavy (in the insect world) weight.

The glorious giant flowers of the magnolias have been blooming breathtakingly across the Island and, in fact, do well across the country and the world. The many varieties of magnolias sport pink, white, purple, yellow or red flowers and can be either evergreen or deciduous. 

The shades of the flowers have significance. White symbolizes purity and perfection, while pink reminds us of youth, innocence and joy. Yellow evokes spring and green heralds health and luck. Purple just intensifies all the feelings fostered by these fine flowers. Both Americas and Asia can claim native magnolia species. Named for Pierre Magnol, French physician, botanist and teacher, magnolias have won the hearts of many. More than 200 varieties delight the gardener, though the true aficionados maintain membership to the Magnolia Society International. Since 1963, this group has devoted itself to the appreciation and study of these pleasant plants.

Known more commonly as a southern species, magnolias are the state flower of Mississippi and Louisiana, and Houston, Texas, claims the title of Magnolia City. It is easy to see why these plants are so well loved when you consider that they are deer and insect-resistant to boot!   

The bark and flower buds of the magnolia are used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine. This cure-all will take care of respiratory illness, can act as an antiseptic, promotes good digestion, deters inflammation and swelling, and even cures hair loss! It can also reinvigorate your “chi,” or individual energy, and instill a love of nature. 

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.