Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Flower of Banana Shrub, MICHELIA FIGO

from the April 8, 2012 Newsletter issued from the woods a few miles east of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

Just outside the window of the room where I write there's a ten-ft-tall (3m) shrub or small tree bearing the magnolia-like leaves and magnolia-like flowers shown above.

That flower also shows basic magnolia-flower structure, except for one thing: The green, conelike thing in the flower's center, composed of densely clustered, spirally arranged pistils, perches above the stamens on a stalk. Traditionally, taxonomists have regarded that stalk as significant enough to banish this species from the genus Magnolia into its own genus, the genus Michelia.

Our plant is MICHELIA FIGO, commonly known as the Banana Shrub because of the distinctive, sweet banana scent of its flowers. And what a glorious fragrance it is, especially in the night, and especially on calm early mornings when I sit next to the window with a hot cup of tea. Other English names the little tree goes by are Banana Magnolia and Port Wine Magnolia, even though the plant isn't classified as a magnolia.

However, in 2006, a gene-sequencing study found that the genus Michelia lies within the genus Magnolia, so eventually it may be recognized formally as a Magnolia. Maybe the stalk holding up the pistil-cluster isn't such a big deal after all.

Banana Shrubs are native to China, but here in the US Deep South for many decades they've been regarded as typical and highly desirable citizens of "Old South" gardens. They grow well in shade and seem to like our climate.