Magnolias grow as trees or shrubs and as evergreens or deciduous plants, producing flowers that bloom in several different colors. These flowers don't have petals, per se. Instead they have tepals, leaf-like structures that take the place of both sepals--the outermost whorl of a flower--and petals. On magnolia, tepals make for a show-off of a flower, one that has garnered attention throughout its history with humans. It's a long relationship, occurring in two widely separated continents; the magnolia is native to both Asia and the Americas. The meaning of the flower varies according to culture, location and history.
Japanese associations with magnolia find their context in the tree's use as a medicine and as a potted ornamental shrub.. In traditional Asian medicine, the bark of the tree was, among other things, believed to reinvigorate a person's chi, the energy of life that breathes through all. In the Japanese system of flower meanings called Hanakotoba, the magnolia flower means the sublime, natural and a love of nature. Listing Japanese flower meanings on its site, A Taste of Japan advises that magnolias are a good choice to send on the occasion of a birth, logical, given the association with life force.
The name "jade orchid" can evoke associations with China's mighty imperial past. Jade orchid is Magnolia denudata, cultivated in China for over a thousand years. The magnolia was used often in Chinese art, either by itself or in combination with other plants. Just as words have different meanings in different contexts, the meaning of painted magnolias was also fluid. Magnolia could mean "certainly" when used as the beginning of a sentiment with other symbols; acknowledge success at China's Hanlin Academy when painted along with with crab apple; and "pure and noble" when depicted with thoroughwort.
Modern day florists also give meanings to the magnolia, some brought forward from the past while other meanings are rooted in present culture. Floriography--the language of flowers--arises from experiences with the flowers themselves: when they bloom, how big they are, whether they hide primly within foliage or, like the magnolia, bloom boldly and large like a star taking center-stage. In the South, where Magnolia grandiflora blooms with scented, white flowers a foot across, the meanings of the flower include magnificence and splendid beauty.
Including the meaning of color (and number and placement) in the overall meaning of a flower lends nuance, so much so that flowers have served as coded messages in various cultures. Magnolias bloom in white, yellow, green, pink and purple. White means purity and perfection and, thus, things at their beginning. (Recall the magnolia as an appropriate herald of a birth in Hanakotoba.) Pink also can recall youth and innocence, along with joy. Yellow means joy, too, and evokes spring. Health and luck are attributes of green, so a green magnolia could wish a recipient magnificent health and luck. Adding a purple (power) magnolia would amplify those wishes.
For many people, magnolias mean the South. So emblematic of the South is the magnolia that the flower refers to all southern women in the title of the 1989 movie Steel Magnolias, starring Dolly Parton (another Southern icon) and Julia Roberts. Both Louisiana and Mississippi have the magnolia as their state flowers--Magnolia grandiflora, to be exact. Mississippi also uses the magnolia as its state tree.