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Historic magnolias

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Since their first planting in 1932, the magnolias have been a key collection at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), and to this day their sweet scent and showy blossoms are among the early signs of spring at the garden.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Judith D. Zuk Magnolia Plaza. In late March, the star magnolias (Magnolia stellata) begin to bloom, covering the trees with thousands of lacy white flowers.

In April, the plaza is splashed with the ivory, yellow, pink, and rich purple of 17 varieties of magnolias.

The last of the collection, the sweet-bay magnolia (M. virginiana), reveals its fragrant, creamy white flowers in June, as does the southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) and the Oyama magnolia (M. sieboldii).

Magnolia Plaza, first planted in the spring of 1932, was designed by Harold Caparn, the garden’s landscape architect from 1912 to 1945, and funded by the BBG Auxiliary, which raised more than $1,500 for the project.

The first planting included 80 magnolias, 5,000 ivy plants, 650 euonymus, 450 California privet, 60 barberry shrubs, 20 akebias, and two tulip trees. The barberry, privet, akebia, and tulip trees are long gone, but the other plant material remains from the early design.

In 1933, the compass and armillary sphere were added to Magnolia Plaza, the bequest of A.W. Jenkins, a member of the garden’s governing committee. The sphere is made of bronze bands representing the principle celestial circles and constellations.

A thin bronze rod, or gnomon, passes through the center of the sphere, pointing north and casting a shadow on the inside of the sphere, which can be used to tell the approximate time.

In October of 2005, Magnolia Plaza was dedicated to Judy Zuk, the former president of the garden. In a dedication ceremony with local government officials, the BBG Board of Trustees, Auxiliary, and staff, in addition to Heart of Brooklyn Cultural Partners, the Plaza was officially named the Judith D. Zuk Magnolia Plaza in honor of BBG’s fifth president.

Zuk died in September 2007. Magnolias were her favorite flower plant.

Beginning in the 1950s, BBG scientists began crossing magnolia and producing a variety of cultivars. Best known are a series of yellow-flowered magnolias including ‘Yellow Bird,’ ‘Elizabeth,’ ‘Lois,’ and ‘Judy Zuk.’

The garden’s Magnolia Collection is currently being expanded to include, among other things, a number of top hybrids inspired by BBG breeding work. The name associated with Magnolia x brooklynensis is used to describe such crosses in commemoration of the leading BBG breeding work.

Other BBG hybrids are ‘Evamaria,’ ‘Hattie Carthan,’ ‘Marillyn,’ and a selection known in the horticultural and nursery trade as Black Beauty, which is not an official cultivar moniker.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden is located at 1000 Washington Avenue. For more, call 718-623-7200 or visit

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