With the caveat that 72-degrees-and-sunny is hardly what a stil-parched California needs in early February, it sure is nice! If you were expecting endless storms off the Pacific this month, you should press your luck and check out San Francisco Botanical Garden in the very near future, because the magnolias are in bloom.
The garden maintains more than 100 of them, making it the biggest collection of any conservation outside of their native China. With 44 species, 42 cultivars and 16 hybrids or varieties, the sweet, Mississippian perfume of their large flowers — almost the same color as the pear blossoms, which are also in bloom around the city — fills this section of Golden Gate Park. The flowers are large, of course, and doubly notable because they open long before any leaves appear (and they won't last through March).
While they've been cultivated for centuries, magnolias go back much further than that. They're among the most ancient flowering plants, having evolved long before bees (which helps explain their curious distribution across the globe). Most of the Botanical Garden's magnolias are from the prized species Magnolia campbellii, but others are rarer: Magnolia zenii is critically endangered, and only a few dozen species exist in their natural habitat. Magnolia doltsopa is an evergreen discovered in Nepal during the 19th century, while Magonlia laevifolia 'Strybing Compact' grows at elevations as high as 9,000 feet.
To get a good sense of the breadth of the Botanical Garden's collection, its staff has created a free app. Docent tours, every Sunday at 2 p.m. through March 26, can help elucidate the mysterious beauty of this living fossil, and a special Magnolias by Moonlight (Monday, Feb. 22, 6-8 p.m., $25) tour will reveal the silvery flowers in the light of the full moon. If you're feeling even cuddlier, there's Meet Me Under the Magnolia: Valentine's Day Treats and Tours (Saturday, Feb. 13, 3-5 p.m, $70 per couple), which includes sparkling wine and pie from Butter Love Bakeshop along with a docent-directed trek through the garden. Whatever you do, don't miss them completely. Magnolias bloom only once a year — and it's going to start raining again eventually.
San Francisco Botanical Garden, entrances at Ninth Ave. and Lincoln Way and at MLK Drive at Music Concourse, Golden Gate Park. Free for S.F. residents.