Plant stories: Leonard Messel

Bursting forth over the past week or so have been gorgeous magnolia blooms, borne on bare branches and a sure sign that the sap is rising and spring is on the way.

The Wairere Nursery website has a fascinating little story about magnolias, so ancient they were on the Earth before the honey bee. As a result, magnolias are usually pollinated by a beetle. Named for an 18th century French botanist Pierre Magnol, magnolias are divided into two main types – deciduous (from Asia) and evergreen (mostly from America).

The flowers of Magnolia Leonard Messel are a deeper colour on the back … Photo: Sandra Simpson

The tree we’re looking at today was named for Leonard Messel, the owner of Nymans garden in Sussex, England where this ‘star’ magnolia was found in the 1950s. It was a sport of Magnolia × loebneri Kache, which itself is a hybrid of the Japanese Magnolia kobus and Magnolia stellata. The hybridiser was Garteninspektor Max Löbner of Pillnitz, Germany, who made the cross shortly before World War I. Ironically, Leonard Messel, who wanted to fight for Britain, was refused active service because of his German name and the fact his father had been German (the family were Jewish).

Nymans was developed by three generations of the Messel family with Leonard (son of the original purchaser Ludwig) and his wife Maud thought to have brought it to its peak – along with their heard gardener James Comber, who started at Nymans in 1895 aged 29, and was a keen hybridiser. Comber’s son Harold undertook seed-collecting expeditions to South America in the 1920s and was a well-known plantsman in his own right, later emigrating to the US.

… and are almost white on the inside. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The garden is part of the National Trust and open to the public. There are other plants named for the family, including Camellia Leonard Messel and Camellia Maud Messel.

By way of a digression, photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the former husband of Princess Margaret (and the first Earl Snowden), is a grandson of Leonard and Maud Messel. His ‘royal’ children also display artistic talent – furniture designer David Linley (Viscount Linley) and Lady Sarah Chatto, a painter. Lord Snowden also has three more children from three other relationships, Lady Frances von Hoffmanstahl (nee Armstrong-Jones, who has set up the Snowden Archive to catalogue her father’s work), Jasper Cable-Alexander and Polly Higson (nee Fry).