The Cucumber Tree

Magnolia acuminata

This very rare Carolinean species is Canada’s only native Magnolia species, and unfortunately was Ontario’s first endangered tree species. Although this magnificent species is more common in the south-eastern United States, it is endangered in Ontario and Canada due to deforestation and loss of habitat. Individual trees are often separated by fragmented forests and are too far apart to be properly pollinated, so rehabilitation efforts have been slow. This unique tree gets its common name from the shape and colour of the unripe seed pods. Ripe seed pods are a brilliant dark red. The Cucumber-Tree produces yellow-green flowers in early spring as the leaves open.

The Cucumber Tree is Ontario’s only native Magnolia species which is also endangered. Magnolias are one of the oldest families of flowering plants, they evolved on Earth as far back as 95 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. While there were dinosaurs at that time, bees still did not exist, so magnolias evolved to be pollinated by beetles.

The Cucumber Tree gets its name from its fruit which is cucumber-like in appearance, and changes from green to red as it ripens. Once ripe, the oily, scented seeds are exposed and hung by fine threads. It is assumed that birds are the main consumers and dispersers of these seeds. Cucumber Magnolias can grow to up to 30 meters and have a pyramid-like canopy shape.

Traditionally, the bark of M. acuminata was used to reduce fever and inflammation, and as a replacement for quinine (to treat malaria) in some areas. The Cucumber Tree was used by the Cherokee and Iroquois First Nations for a variety of medicinal purposes including alleviating stomach aches and toothaches.
Cucumber tree cultivation began in 1736 introduced by the Virginia botanist John Clayton. Like many newly discovered species native to America, during the colonial period, Cucumber Tree seeds were sent to England to be studied by naturalists and botanists. In the Americas, Cucumber Tree was used by First Nations due to its medicinal properties. Unripe Cucumber Tree fruit was also used to add flavor to whiskey, which gave the drink a bitter taste.

The Cucumber Tree is listed as an endangered species in Ontario and protected under the Canadian Species at Risk Act. There are only twelve remaining natural stands of a few trees, located in Norfolk and Niagara counties. One of the most prominent conservation sites for The Cucumber Magnolias is Guelph’s Arboretum. Land clearing and habitat loss are the primary culprits for the decline of the species. The Cucumber Tree Magnolia genus at Arboretum has a stable reproducing population, but not without deliberate conservation efforts. Guelph-Eramosa councilor couple Corey and Kate Woods are among the donors that have been consistently supporting the conservational efforts of Cucumber Tree Magnolias. Over the course of three donations, more than 80 Cucumber Trees have been planted in various parks around the municipality including the University of Guelph Arboretum.

I was intrigued with Cucumber Magnolia as soon as I heard about it from my Arboretum contact Justine. I have seen Magnolias before (there are a few Magnolia trees growing on backyards on College Street), but never up close, and what I imagined to be an ordinary tree genius, was not at all ordinary upon further inspection.

From afar (and especially in the spring when they bloom) Magnolias look like pretty flowery trees akin to Japanese Cherry Blossom Trees (that's how they seemed to me, at least). But it is only when I started reading about Magnolias and working with them, I realised how alien they are not only in their looks, but also genetic characteristics. The flowers and fruits of Cucumber Magnolia trees are large and so oddly shaped, they make it seem as if the species were left behind by an ancient unknown civilization. Magnolia Tree leaves are likewise large, and the canopy is so thick that a child could hide entirely inside it.

In my composition, I wanted to reflect the alien-ness of Cucumber Tree Magnolias and perhaps wonder off into dissonant harmonic soundscapes. The biodata soundscape of Cucumber Magnolias seemed somehow thick and dense to me, for the lack of better comparison and I wanted to preserve this denseness and fullness as I went along with the composition. I wanted to place emphasis on lower frequencies in this piece, but also allow the sound to wonder off into upper frequency registers to create the perception of fullness. I added cello drones and subtle choral harmonies to enhance lower frequencies and airy upper frequencies respectively.

When I was composing, I was often thinking what the Earth would have looked like in the era when first Magnolia blooms saw the light of day. A lot of muted stormy purple and dusky pink shades came to mind. Maybe you can imagine a stormy purple-gray sky, thick air smelling of ozone, and the muted pink shades of the sun rays protruding through the clouds as you close your eyes and immerse yourself into the composition. Let me know if you see any dinosaurs.

Cucumber Magnolia @ Arboretum website

Other Tree Stories

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Lady of the Woods