Magnolia is a tree which I fall in love with again, every year. Everything about it enthralls me. From the graceful angles of the branches, the bark, exotic blooms to the glossy evergreen leaves. A huge magnolia in bloom is a show stopper. One such tree arches quietly over the terrace behind Huize Frankendael, in Amsterdam east. Hundreds of visitors must walk beneath it without giving the tree much thought, until in March or April it explodes into bloom. There is no other tree that I would rather sit beneath and gaze up through than that magnificent magnolia in spring!
Edible and Medicinal Magnolia Petals
The flowers of Magnolia trees are edible and medicinal. In traditional chinese medicine, Magnolia flowers are known as Xin yi hua and are associated with the lung and stomach meridians. I enjoy eating them fresh plucked each year and happily report that they taste fragrant and spicy. I can also report that when I eat Magnolia petal, my sinuses become clear, quite like magic.
Imagine a slightly rubbery super sized rose petal which clears the sinuses a little, when you bite into it and you are getting close to the mouth feel and flavour of a magnolia petal. I like them very much and because a little goes a long way with these large petals, I can certainly recommend them to other urban herb lovers. As you may know, via my apprenticeship and walks, I teach how to harvest interesting herbs in towns and cities, in a safe and ethical way. This entails taking only a little, leaving no trace and really make the most of the harvest. Do contact me if you would like to know more – This is my passion!
Fairly recent research suggests that Magnolia bark extract can help with oral health, stress reduction and several other disorders. In traditional medicine it is reportedly used as an antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anticancer agent, in the treatment of Alzheimer disease, depression, diabetes, and menopause. All Magnolia species varieties are considered to possess the same medicinal qualities and there are apparently no known side effects – although we know that someone somewhere, could be allergic to the plant, so please be cautious. Magnolia Bark Extract is widely available for sale and Magnolia bark is an ingredient in many traditional Chinese medicines including Hsiao-cheng-chi-tang, Wuu-Ji-San, Heii-san, Shimpi-to, Hangekouboku-to, Masinin-gan, Sai-boku-to, Syosaiko-to, Irei-to and Goshaku-san.
Japanese traditional medicine also prizes both the bark and flowers of Magnolia. Bark harvesting is not something suggested for the urban forager because it certainly leaves a trace and it is certainly not ethical.
Stealthy Petal Plucking
When harvesting from perhaps the most beautiful of city trees, one would perhaps look both foolish and anti-social to pluck entire flowers. So I suggest that you don’t. Instead, I recommend that when stumbling upon a prime Magnolia specimen in bloom, and feeling the urge to eat it, you do the following:
1. After checking for unwanted observers, wander nonchalantly up to the tree. Are the blossoms within your reach? If not move on to another.
2. If so, reach up as if to smell the fragrance of a prime bloom, pull it gently to your nose with one hand, whilst deftly plucking a single petal from its base, with the other hand whilst simultaneously inhaling the spicy aroma.
3. Tuck the plucked petal in your pocket as you gently release the bloom with your other hand.
4. Move along to another flower, as if to compare its scent with the previous bloom. Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you have harvested three or four petals.
A magnolia flower can miss one petal without much issue. If two or more petals are plucked from one bloom, evidence of foraging shows and that is not the plan. So one petal from a flower, move to another, one more petal and so on. When you have three or four petals, you are done. That is enough to make something very tasty and useful and you will have increased your stealth foraging skills..
I tend to forage a handful of petals each year, from 6 favourite Magnolias which are dotted around east Amsterdam. They are all growing in public spaces so stealth foraging is required. I don’t harvest from them if other people are around because apart from it just looks silly. I also limit myself to plucking a petal from two flowers per tree. I first wrote about my love of Magnolia petals on 2012. Since then urban foraging has increased in popularity so I also am careful to only pluck from Magnolias which seem not to have been visited by other foragers.
Magnolia Petal Recipes
Things that I like to do with a precious handful of magnolia petals. I hope that you have a go and let me know how you get on in the comments.
Magnolia Petal Pickle
They can be pickled, old English style by simply filling a small jar with fresh petals and then completely filling the jar again with rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar with a little salt and sugar to balance the flavours. I don’t add sugar or salt so I guess my version is simply Magnolia petal vinegar – I don’t mind because it tastes good 🙂
Fermented Magnolia Petals
You may like to ferment them using a little salt and water, in the style of Sandor Katz.
I prefer to lay them in my handy small Japanese vegetable press. I then sprinkle with a pinch of salt and apply the gentle but consistent pressure of the Japanese press for about 3 hours. This produces a very light ferment and it draws out some of the water from the petals (which tastes good too). You can leave the pressure for a lot longer if you prefer, winding the contraption every few hours to ensure the petals are in fact under a little pressure and to encourage the process.
Magnolia Petal Honey
When I first tasted a Magnolia petal and felt its clearing effect on my sinuses, I decided to transfer the petals’ properties to honey. This is soooo simple to make. It creates something which my family and friends find delicious and I hope you will too. If the honey turns you off, try Agave syrup. It works very well but in my experience is less spreadable (being rather runny).
How to Make Magnolia Petal Honey (or use Agave syrup)
1. Gather your petals.
2. I rarely wash magnolia petals because I only harvest clean looking ones, which are from way above the ground but unsoiled by birds. You may like to wash yours. If so, then dry them off.
3. Tear the clean, surface dry petals into a sterile small glass jar. I use dishwasher cleaned pesto jars for this sort of thing.
4. Covered completely with runny honey. Use a chop stick or knitting needle to loosen trapped air bubbles. You may need to release the air and top up with honey several times. The jar should be filled to the brim with honey. The air bubbles won’t all leave the honey but prodding with chopsticks, helps them to escape and thus reduces the risk of contamination.
5. When no more air bubbles are escaping and no more honey needs to be added, close the jar tightly with its lid.
6. The constituents of the petals will infuse into the honey over the following days and weeks but the honey will take on a delicious Magnolia aroma and taste within a few hours.
7. Eat in any honey way (smear on bread, add to smoothies, mix with a little vinegar for an elixir, etc) you choose or take a teaspoon now and them to help soothe anxiety, sore throats or respiratory congestion. I don’t bother to strain this honey as I like the petal crunch. You could strain after 6 weeks if you preferred. It seems a waste of those petals though.
Please note that the herbal honey may start to ferment after a while, due to the high water content in the petals. Keep an eye on the jar, if it starts to bubble, the lid must be loosened to avoid pressure building up and the glass jar exploding. Storing it in a cool dark location will help to preserve its shelf life. Eating it all up will also avoid the problem 🙂
I hope that you get a taste for Magnolia petals this year and have a try at infusing them in honey, agave syrup, vinegar, vodka or olive oil. This herb is so beautiful, so giving and so tasty – it would be a pity to miss the fun completely wouldn’t it? I was looking at my favourite Magnolia at twilight this evening. It will open its blooms very soon and I will be waiting and thanking it for every petal.
Do you like it?
Please do add a comment about your magnolia experiences at the foot of the page or fill in the contact form. I would love to hear how you get on with magnolia and what else you are keen to learn about!
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If you want to learn more about foraging and using herbs in towns and cities, take a look at my apprenticeship course. I have helped hundreds of wonderful people learn about Urban Herbology over the years and I would love to help you on your journey!