Laura Dwight’s Vision of Magnolias

March 20, 2012
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Each spring, the beauty of the Back Bay is enriched by the bloom of magnolia trees gracing the front yards of historic buildings. The first generation of these trees was planted in the 1960s, a gift to the future from a woman named Laura Dwight.

The Garden Club of the Back Bay will celebrate its 50th anniversary by sponsoring the sale and spring 2013 planting of 50 “Moon Glow” white magnolias. Laura Dwight was one of the club’s organizers and its first president. This generation of trees will be a counterpoint to the pink “saucer” magnolias Dwight planted, blooming later and longer than the existing ones.

Homeowners can reserve 7-foot trees from the Garden Club at the substantially discounted price of $500 including planting by an arborist. Details may be found at www.gardenclubbackbay.org or by calling 617-859-8865.

Turning the Tide of Urban Decay

“It is difficult, when you look at the effect of the magnolias on the avenue, to imagine the city without them. Their sense of permanence is absolute, although the blossoms are creatures of a week…” wrote M. R. Montgomery, in a 1989 Boston Globe piece. Also described were the efforts by Laura Dwight and Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay volunteers “to prevent the area from tipping over into slumdom.”

The persuasive Miss Dwight convinced property owners to buy nearly 50 trees and found the manpower to plant them. In 1964, MIT’s Delta Upsilon fraternity invited neighbors to a tea party to open a dialogue with the community. By day’s end, she had recruited the brothers to help plant magnolias.

In a profile of Dwight in Arnold Arboretum’s Arnoldia, Judith Leet described how this activist rang doorbells and “offered to provide free labor to plant the trees on a designated weekend, the material to enrich the soil, and a young tree… The resident only had to agree to the idea in principle and to pay a nominal sum for the young tree.”

This philosophy of making it easy to add beauty to the neighborhood seems to have set the tone for so many successful Garden Club projects, from installing tree fences to the current anniversary magnolia planting.

Second Generation

“Another 40-45 Magnolia stellata were planted in 1995,” said Garden Club Co-President Jolinda Taylor. This planting was organized by Margaret Pokorny, who said, “We have been fortunate to have available yards and willing residents to allow this to happen.” She explained that, “The two new varieties, the Leonard Messel [star magnolia] and the new one coming, the Moon Glow, were chosen with the advice and help of Peter Del Tredici at the Arnold Arboretum.”

The Originals

Magnolias were a wise choice for Dwight’s project. For all their beauty, Margaret Pokorny described them as, “Very tough trees. They can take a lot of storm damage, they can even be cut to the ground and they’ll come back. They don’t get a lot of diseases.” And, they have longevity. Magnolias can live for a hundred years.

Many of the original plantings are along Commonwealth Avenue, with a great display of them between Massachusetts Avenue and Gloucester Street. If you see pink saucer-shaped blossoms on a tree with a main trunk that is 10 to 12 inches in diameter, it is likely more than 50 years old.

“Laura Dwight’s personal beautification crusade began a half-century Back Bay tradition of planting magnolias,” Pokorny said. “The pink and white flowers throughout our neighborhood are one of the most unique and beautiful urban blooms in Boston and beyond.”

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