Magnolia is an ancient genus. Having evolved before bees appeared, the flowers developed to encourage pollination by beetles. To avoid damage from pollinating beetles, the carpels of Magnolia flowers are extremely tough. Fossilised specimens of Magnolia acuminata have been found dating to 20 million years ago, and of plants identifiably belonging to the Magnoliaceae dating to 95 million years ago. Another primitive aspect of Magnolias is their lack of distinct sepals or petals: Magnolias possess undifferentiated flower parts for which the term "tepals" was coined.
The natural range of Magnolia species is a disjunct distribution, with a main centre in east and southeast Asia and a secondary centre in eastern North America, Central America, the West Indies, and some species in South America.
In 1703 Charles Plumier (1646–1704) described a flowering tree from the island of Martinique in his Genera. He gave the species, known locally as "talauma", the genus name Magnolia, after Pierre Magnol. The English botanist William Sherard, who studied botany in Paris under Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, a pupil of Magnol, was most probably the first after Plumier to adopt the genus name Magnolia. He was at least responsible for the taxonomic part of Johann Jacob Dillenius's Hortus Elthamensis and of Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. These were the first works after Plumier's Genera that used the name Magnolia, this time for some species of flowering trees from temperate North America. Carolus Linnaeus, who was familiar with Plumier's Genera, adopted the genus name Magnolia in 1735 in his first edition of Systema naturae, without a description but with a reference to Plumier's work. In 1753, he took up Plumier's Magnolia in the first edition of Species plantarum. Since Linnaeus never saw an herbarium specimen (if there ever was one) of Plumier's Magnolia and had only his description and a rather poor picture at hand, he must have taken it for the same plant which was described by Catesby in his 1730 Natural History of Carolina. He placed it in the synonymy of Magnolia virginiana var. fœtida, the taxon now known as Magnolia grandiflora.