Sunday, May 26, 2013

Magnolias, Southern Style

Few plants epitomize the floral beauty of the Southeastern United States like the native southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).  Tall and evergreen, with beautiful fragrant blossoms, this tree offers almost every characteristic that a gardener desires in a plant. The unique seed pods have always been interesting to kids (and birds). We would pluck out the fleshy red fruits out of curiosity … or throw the whole pod at each other. We had two big trees next door to us when I was growing up; they can also make for good climbing trees if the branches are allowed to stay low.

As iconic as this tree is, it is indigenous to only the coastal areas of the South, particularly in Georgia. It is widely planted as a landscape tree throughout the South now because it seems to tolerate urban conditions very well.

Magnolia grandiflora

I photographed this tree in a parking lot where it and many others were covered in blooms. The cultivar ‘Little Gem’ has found particular favor with landscaper designers that need a smaller sized tree. Homeowners seeking evergreen plants for privacy screening also use this species of magnolia. Natural areas in the Piedmont are experiencing some excessive amounts of M. grandiflora seedlings. I would urge you to reconsider using this species if you are not in the coastal plain and if you adjoin natural areas.

Magnolia macrophylla
Since I’ve learned more about native plants, I have found that we have many other species of Magnolia that are native to Georgia, most of which are deciduous.

I found a native bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) on my very first plant rescue with the native plant society. It was winter time and it looked like a big stick. I was thrilled to see those big leaves unfurl in the spring. Like the leaves, the blossoms are larger than those of M. grandiflora, and they are fragrant as well.

Magnolia tripetala

I’ve been enchanted with the deciduous magnolias ever since that first rescue. Another “bigleaf” magnolia is Magnolia tripetala, also called the umbrella magnolia because of the way the leaves are in a whorled arrangement.

I have rescued this one as well but I have since discovered that it grows naturally in my neighborhood where the properties adjoin the river. The blossoms are a little smaller and a little on the stinky side (but only if you get really close). It blooms about a month earlier than the others described here.

Other deciduous species are Magnolia ashei, Magnolia pyramidata, Magnolia acuminata, and Magnolia fraseri. The first two are more southern species while the latter two are more northern. There is one more evergreen species – the sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) which has a much smaller blossom than the others.

Magnolia virginiana
My little sweetbay magnolia needs more light than it’s getting, but it has bloomed several times. The sweetness of the fragrance is almost unmatched.

The leaves are a soft green color with silver backs. They are small, supple leaves without the stiff coating that is so characteristic of M. grandiflora leaves. A nursery near me has a mature specimen on site, and I was surprised to see how big it can get in favorable conditions. This tree is also tolerant of wet conditions but doesn’t require them. 

Some people seek out the variety Magnolia virginiana var. australis which is thought to be more reliably evergreen for more northern locations. ‘Henry Hicks’ is a cultivar of this variety and was selected at Scott Arboretum in Pennsylvania.

I hope this has helped you learn more about our mahvelous magnolias here in Georgia. They truly are a delightful part of our indigenous plant community as well as our southern culture.

1 comment:

  1. I put in a magnolia macrophylla earlier this spring. I am looking forward to it maturing and definitely want to add more native magnolias. They are fabulous!