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Tales of Tuscaloosa: The Dearing-Swaim Magnolia (March 31, 1744)

13 Mar 2018 Jim Ezell
The magnolia partially shown on the right was almost 200 years old when this photograph was taken in 1939 for the Carnegie Survey of Architecture of the South. Wisteria vines can be seen hanging from the lowest branches. The magnolia partially shown on the right was almost 200 years old when this photograph was taken in 1939 for the Carnegie Survey of Architecture of the South. Wisteria vines can be seen hanging from the lowest branches. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The year 1744 was eventful. On March 31, a formal declaration pulled England into the War of Austrian Succession—known in the American colonies as King George’s War. Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius, inventor of the centigrade thermometer, died. Abigail Smith Adams, the second First Lady of the United States, was born in Massachusetts. Colonial Georgia struggled for its existence, while Mobile, the former capital of French colonial Louisiana, had become a military outpost and major center for trade with the Indians. In the wilderness that would become West Alabama, a red seed had fallen to the forest floor and germinated. It sank its roots and tentatively sent up a sprout with large, shiny leaves.

For more than two and a half centuries, nations and empires rose and fell. There was revolution, the displacement of native peoples, civil war, the emancipation of the enslaved, and conflicts engulfing much of the world. But the tree continued to grow and slowly came to dominate its surroundings.

Beginning perhaps in 1819, or a little later as early Tuscaloosa developed, almost all the trees were cleared and the land overlain with streets and buildings. No longer in the wilderness but now, on a lot near the intersection of East Margin St. (Queen City Ave.) and Chestnut St. (14th St.), the tree flourished. The Dearing-Swaim House was built behind it in 1835, and subsequent generations of adults enjoyed its shade. Children played in its low-hanging branches.

The tree in question is a magnificent specimen of Magnolia grandiflora, commonly known as the Southern Magnolia, an evergreen noted for huge flowers. They can grow to a height of over 100-feet and live for centuries. 

On September 18, 1987, the Tuscaloosa News reported that the Dearing-Swaim magnolia had been named a “Living Witness” tree. It was one of eight trees designated by the Alabama Forestry Commission as having been alive 200 years earlier when the United States Constitution was ratified.

Through nearly three centuries of life, the Dearing- Swaim magnolia has survived encroachment by humans, tornadoes, hurricanes sweeping in from the Gulf, droughts, and thunderstorms. Yet it thrived and still stands as a landmark of perseverance and beauty. 

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Birmingham Post-Herald (BPH) is Birmingham, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.

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