Magnificent magnolia in Germantown embraces neighbors, graces spring

Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood is known to many for its accessible historic sites, but one 150-year-old treasure, a massive magnolia tree, remains hidden from sightseers.

Homeowner Lauren Eckel laments the fact that the majestic tree in her backyard isn’t visible from the front of Rittenhouse Street, where she’s lived with her husband and two sons for six years.

“No one can see it,” says Eckel. “We’ll just have to bring them in!”

The mighty tree dwarfs the houses surrounding it, commanding a spot where the yards of Eckel and her neighbor meet.

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In early spring, the tree is arrayed with pinkish-purple and white saucer-shaped blossoms, filling the neighborhood with sweet aroma. Eckel marks the blooming with an annual brunch for her family under the tree’s low-hanging branches.

She also remembers the tree on the day she brought her son, Wesley, home from the hospital. The tree was blooming that day four years ago; each year, Eckel hopes the tree will flower again on his birthday.

Neighbors Angela Miles and Carl Cheeseman have lived on Rittenhouse Street for only about a year and a half. But when they first looked at their now home in late March, the tree helped convince them to buy the house.

Miles calls the tree’s once-a-year flowering display “full Dolly Parton mode” and muses that the tree’s annual reveal signifies another year gone by.

Both Cheeseman and Miles ponder the longevity of the tree. For them, the “Magnolia Cove,” a pet name for the space, has a mythology all its own.

There are other magnolia trees in nearby Vernon Park, but none as impressive as the tree in the yard.

“Because of the size and spread of this tree, as well as the location, it seems feasible that it could have been one of those first Philadelphia Magnolia soulangeanas,” says NewsWorks’ horticultural blogger Nicole Juday.

Juday, who visited the tree, says the magnolia is most likely from the late 1830s or early 1840s and probably a direct descendant of a hybrid breed developed by Etienne Soulange-Bodin, a soldier of Napoleon’s army.

Regardless of the magnolia’s origin, both neighbors feel funny claiming ownership of the tree. Cheeseman says they are lucky to “just be hanging out with it for a while.”

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