Striving for Diversity: Fragrant Champaca

By: Matt Ritter
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Matt Ritter is a professor in the Biology Department and director of the Plant Conservatory at California Polytechnic University, San…

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Magnolia xalba on a San Francisco street. Author’s photographs

Magnolia xalba on a San Francisco street. Author’s photographs

Compared to other mammals, humans are relatively inept at detecting and distinguishing scents. Our poor sense of smell is reflected in our languages, which are full of redundant words for color, but relatively devoid of words for scent. We usually default to the phrase “it smells like . . .” when describing scents. This phrase came to mind when, in the summer of 2004, Larry Schokman, the longtime curator of the National Tropical Botanical Garden Kampong site in South Florida, picked a large, waxy, beige flower from a strange tree in his garden and held it to my nose. Its enchanting fragrance was some combination of freesia, plumeria, orange blossoms, and Southern magnolia.

I saw the same flowers a few years later on a tree at the Iraivan Hindu Temple on the eastern side of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The tree was in full bloom, and its sweet scent could be enjoyed, even with my weak human sniffer, from many yards away. I was surprised to find a similar tropical tree last year growing as a street tree in a San Francisco neighborhood. Larry Schokman’s tree was champaca (Magnolia champaca), as was the one in Hawaii; the street tree in San Francisco was M. xalba, a closely related, white-flowered hybrid of M. champaca and M. montana.

These two beautiful trees have many common names including champaca, michelia, champak, golden champa, Joy perfume tree, banana shrub, white sandalwood, and white jade flower. The derivation of the word shampoo is the Hindi word champo, meaning to massage, which comes from champa, the Sanskrit name for champaca. This tree was traditionally used to make fragrant hair and massage oils. In fact, Jean Patou’s famous perfume, Joy, the second best selling perfume in the world after Chanel No. 5, is derived, in part, from the essential oils of champaca flowers.

In its native India and Southeast Asia, champaca is logged for its valuable timber. It yields finely textured, dark brown and olive-colored wood, which is used in furniture making, construction, and cabinetry. The species is protected from logging in some parts of India, especially the Southwest, where certain groves are considered sacred by Hindus and Buddhists. The white champaca hybrid (M. xalba) is prized throughout Asia for its fragrant, pure-white flowers, which are commonly floated in water bowls as Buddhist temple offerings and household decoration.

In that native range, champaca is a smooth-barked, large, evergreen, timber tree that grows more than one hundred feet tall. In cultivation, they mature at between twenty-five and forty feet. The bright green, glossy leaves have wavy edges, prominent veins, and a finely pointed apex or “drip tip.” The flowers have ten to twenty yellow, orange, or cream-colored tepals (the term used for the petal-like structures in flowers without distinct sepals and petals) that get progressively smaller towards the center of the flower. Champaca fruit are clumping, oblong, brown follicles that split at maturity, exposing bright red seeds. The white champaca hybrid has thinner tepals and rarely makes fruit.

Fruit of champaca (Magnolia champaca)

Fruit of champaca (Magnolia champaca)

Bark of Magnolia xalba

A Nomenclatural Change

Formerly known as Michelia champaca, champaca and seventy or so other species of Michelia were distinguished from the magnolias by the position of the flowers: magnolias produce flowers only at branch tips, whereas michelia flowers are borne along stems in the leaf axils. This obvious morphological difference is actually a poor indicator of evolutionary relatedness; recent studies have shown that some michelias are more closely related to magnolias than to other michelias. These findings have resulted in the lumping of Michelia (along with other closely related genera like Manglietia and Parakmeria) into the genus Magnolia.

In California, champaca and its white-flowered hybrid have followed the many Asian immigrants, and you’ll often find both trees planted in back yards and in Buddhist temple gardens, as exemplified by the several medium-sized trees gracing the grounds of the Duc Vien Buddhist Temple in San Jose. Both species grow well in warmer parts of coastal Southern and Central California, tolerating winter low temperatures in the high 20s F; Sunset recommends them for zones 16-24. In places regularly experiencing colder temperatures, champacas will flower as large container plants if protected during the winter. Neither species have disease issues, both benefit from mulching and an application of compost in late summer, and both will grow best in moist, deep, fertile soils. Summer is the height of the flowering season, but trees often bloom year-round in coastal California. Trees grown from cuttings will flower at an earlier age than those grown from seed, which usually take nearly ten years to bloom. Such sweet smelling flowers, though, are well worth the wait.

Flowers of Magnolia xalba

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A Champaca Resource Guide