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Sean Kirst: On Buffalo's East Side, the mystery of a lone magnolia

Every magnolia tree has a story. In a year when Western New York's magnolias are especially beautiful, columnist Sean Kirst offers a reflection on one mysterious tree in Buffalo. If you have your own stories about family magnolia trees – especially for Mother's Day – email Kirst at skirst@buffnews.com, leave a comment below or write to him at The Buffalo News, One News Plaza, Buffalo 14240

The tree was in such magnificent blossom that the sight of it stopped me, even from a side street. I was driving Wednesday on Walden Avenue on Buffalo's East Side when I saw a burst of color so intense, from the corner of my eye, that I turned around in a parking lot for the chance to look again.

It was a magnolia tree, standing alone in an empty lot on Rother Avenue. Whatever house had once been there was long gone. You could still see the impression of a walkway that must have led to a vanished porch. The lot was empty, except for a couple of tattered mattresses and some other debris someone had dumped in the tall grass.

Hang with me. This is where I can use your help.

I wandered over to speak with Kim Kemp, who was standing outside a house just down the block. She said she has lived on Rother for about five years, and she had traveled up and down the street countless times in the course of her life. The magnolia has been there for as long as she remembers.

Every year, for a few days, it brings a kind of otherworldly splendor.

"It's a beautiful tree," Kemp said, her arms folded as she looking at the blossoms. A little kid, riding past on his bike, stopped to admire it as well. A few children in traditional Somalian garb, playing on the second-story porch of an old house, also paused to look.

We all stood there for a few moments, absorbed by the tree.

Later that day I called Beth Edward, who is as passionate about magnolias as anyone I have ever met. Raised in Lewiston, she is secretary of the Magnolia Society International. She has almost 200 variations of magnolias in her yard in Central New York, where she works as a computer programmer, and she makes sure her mom has plenty growing in her yard in Cambria.

"This year may be the best ever," Edward said, speaking of the blossoms. Many times, the unpredictable freeze-and-thaw nature of March and April in Upstate New York diminishes the majesty of the flowers or extinguishes them before they reach full glory.

But there was one benefit to the relentless nature of our long, cold April: The magnolias have come out with a fierce and piercing beauty.

"They're absolutely phenomenal," Edward said.

As for the tree on Rother – in a part of the city where life is too often a daily struggle – it was doing exactly what it was created to do. The magnolia trees we see scattered throughout Western New York neighborhoods are known as soulangeanas, said Edward, who loves that emphasis on "soul." They are a hybrid created in the 19th century by a Frenchman, Etienne Soulange-Bodin.

He was a cavalry officer who made it home from the Napoleonic wars. Edward said Soulange-Bodin was weary, sickened by bloodshed, and he offered a famous statement when he returned.

A lonely magnolia tree on Rother Avenue. (Sean Kirst/The Buffalo News)

In essence, he said it would have been better if both sides had stayed home and planted cabbages.

A botanist, Soulange-Bodin got busy nurturing a tree whose beauty was a response to the ugliness that he had witnessed, a tree whose popularity would explode into the American working class in the years just before and after World War II. Even now, drive through any neighborhood in Buffalo or its suburbs and you will find magnolias front and center in many yards, with flowers that serve as calling cards of our Western New York spring.

Those magnificent blossoms have only one drawback.

Their bloom is so fleeting that it is almost heartbreaking. The moment can be over in a couple of days. If you get lucky, Edward said, the cascade of blossoms might, just might, endure for almost a week.

Even as you read this, the tree on Rother is beginning to fade.

Kemp and a friend who cheerfully declined to give her name had no idea who planted that tree. They said the houses that once stood on those lots were long ago demolished.

Yet I wondered about the story of the magnolia, because these trees never arrive by accident.

In a city like Buffalo, every magnolia has a story.

"They're very special trees," said Edward, who now lives in Jamesville and works as a computer programmer. "Many times, people bought them to commemorate important events."

They were often birthday gifts. Or housewarming presents.

Or – because of the timing of the  moment when they blossom – they became a surprise for Mother's Day.

A magnolia this morning, in the rain, North Pearl Street, Buffalo. (Sean Kirst/the Buffalo News)

Here is where I turn to you for help. After admiring the tree and saying goodbye to Kemp, I went to the Buffalo History Museum and tried to solve the mystery of the solitary tree. While I did not nail it down, I hope I made some headway.

According to old city directories, there were two homes on the big open space lot where the tree now stands. The directories indicate a family named Wojnowski lived at that address for decades, while their across-the-street neighbors for most of those years were families named Koniezcka and Wojcik.

They lived there for a long time, and moved away years ago. As of Thursday evening, I had no luck tracking down any relatives, although the quest will continue today.

Most important, I hope someone reading this piece might know the tale behind the tree. I keep thinking of how Phil Perkins, a retiree who lives on the street, said Thursday that he looks forward to the moment when it blooms, how it serves as a beautiful signal that winter is truly over in the neighborhood.

"This is it. This is spring," Perkins said, lifting one hand toward the blooming magnolia, still serving the same purpose it was put there to fulfill.

This week, on the East Side, it caused a pause, a breath, a dream.

Sean Kirst needs your help. Do you know the story behind this magnolia tree? http://buffalonews.com/2018/05/10/sean-kirst-on-buffalos-east-side-the-mystery-of-a-lone-magnolia/

Posted by The Buffalo News on Thursday, May 10, 2018

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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