The Magnificent Magnolia

A stately tree with opulent blossoms

Quino Al

A true Southern garden is not complete without the iconic Southern tree, the beautiful, easy-to-grow magnolia. It is named for the French botanist, Pierre Magnol, who lived in Montpellier, France, in the 17th and 18th centuries. He was one of the first botanists to develop the botanical scheme of plant classification. He published one of the first books about the concept of plant families, which is based on common features that we are all familiar with today. More than 80 varieties of magnolia trees are native to North America, and many will grow in the Midlands.

Magnolias feature blooms in white, pink, red, purple, and yellow with different leaf shapes and mature forms in evergreen and deciduous varieties. Deer usually do not munch on their leaves, which is an important trait for many area gardens that are veritable salad bars for the local deer herd.

Magnolias are at their finest in May when their large showy blossoms open and blanket the garden and neighborhood with a heavenly scent. To be so majestic, magnolias require little care once they are established. Mature size and a planting site with adequate drainage are the two most important aspects to consider. Magnolia macrophylla gets huge, so take that mature size into consideration when considering a magnolia for the garden.

Work back from the size of your site to determine the right sized variety and the tree’s intended purpose. Is it a specimen? Will it be part of a hedge to disguise an unattractive view or to define the property? Will it act as a windbreak or provide wonderful shade during the summer months? Once these questions have been answered, visit local nurseries or look at photographs of the many varieties that are suitable to our climate; plant the one, or more, that steals your heart.

Magnolias look best when given plenty of room. Make sure they will have enough space to thrive and spread as they mature. Grass and other plants are difficult to grow beneath the canopy of a large magnolia. Let the branches grow to the ground and the leaves fall under the canopy. The decaying leaves actually feed the tree and are essential to the health and longevity of the magnolia. They do not respond well to harsh pruning, so consider all of these factors when choosing a site.

Balled-and-burlapped (commonly referred to as “b and b”) plants are available in the winter and early spring. Container grown plants are usually available all year and transplant more successfully into the garden. Once established, magnolias do not transplant well, so make sure to plant them where they will stay. Magnolias acclimate quickly in the garden if given the right conditions in the beginning. Once established, they are relatively care-free.

Make certain when planting a new tree that the soil drains well and does not stay too moist. Magnolias do not like wet feet. They like a good soaking and then proper drainage. The dark green, thick leaves can tolerate the harsh temperatures of our long summers and the cold days of our short winters. Once established, they basically take care of themselves. This adaptability is one of the reasons so many of them are in old, historic gardens. The true Southern magnolia is timeless, a popular tree for Midlands gardens today.

Varieties of Magnolia

Magnolias are either evergreen or deciduous. Most people think of Magnolia grandiflora when they think of the group of trees known as magnolias with large, glossy leaves and huge, delightfully fragrant flowers. It is the massive one that is so prevalent in older Southern gardens. Many more evergreen varieties offer additional choices based on size and shape.

‘Little Gem,’ a smaller sized, dwarf evergreen variety, has become popular. It has a compact, more narrow form and large, showy, fragrant flowers that appear in late April and May. ‘Little Gem’ thrives in full sun. This particular variety reaches a mature height of 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide. It is best used as a specimen, in a mixed hedge, or as a spectacular espalier, if properly trained. ‘Little Gem’ is much more conducive to suburban gardens and usually does not outgrow its designated space.

‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ is aptly named for the beautiful, velvet-like, cinnamon-brown texture on the bottom part of the leaves. ‘Brown Beauty’ is classified as a medium-sized magnolia that has a mature height of 30 to 50 feet and a mature width of 15 to 30 feet. This variety is hardier at colder temperatures. ‘Brown Beauty’ transplants easily and acclimates quickly to its new environment. It produces large 5 to 6 inch creamy, white flowers that are heavily scented and appear in late April to late May. This variety works well as a hedge or specimen tree. Remember, as with the other varieties, give it plenty of room to grow vertically and horizontally.

Saucer magnolia, a deciduous variety popular in Columbia, is known for its early pink-tinged blossoms that appear in March or April. Because it blooms early in the spring, the blossoms are often damaged by freezing temperatures in March. The blooms turn an ugly brown and hang lifelessly from the bare limbs. This familiar sight hinders me from planting this variety, but many gardeners consider it worth the risk. One mild spring when the blooms are not damaged is enough to convince some to give saucer magnolia a prime space in the garden.

Medium-sized star magnolia blooms in early spring with star-like, multi-petaled blossoms and is a slow grower. Like saucer magnolia, this deciduous tree blooms on bare branches. Star magnolia blooms can also be damaged by a freeze in late March.

Magnolia ‘Black Tulip,’ a deciduous trademarked variety developed by Monrovia, has dramatic dark burgundy blossoms that appear before the foliage in the early spring. It is a medium-sized tree that has a mature height of 20 feet and a mature width of 10 feet, so it is well-suited to suburban and smaller gardens. It thrives in full sun and, if used as a specimen, would make quite a show in the garden.

Sweetbay is a smaller tree that can be evergreen in mild winters and deciduous in harsher winters. It is usually deciduous in the Upper to Middle South and evergreen in the Lower South and Coastal Plain. Because it tolerates wet soil, it is more conducive to a boggy area. The blooms are not terribly showy but are a creamy white and gently fragrant. The blooms show up later in the spring, so they are usually not damaged by a late freeze.


Growing Tips

Magnolias are subject to only a few minor problems, such as scale or leaf spot. These symptoms can usually be left untreated and will not affect the overall health of the tree. If you have a tree with these problems, call a tree expert to devise a plan of treatment.

When first planted, the tree needs an inch of water per week during the growing season. If it is a large transplant, use stakes and straps to ensure that the tree will grow straight. Don’t fertilize until the second or third growing season. If you decide you want to prune your magnolia, do it when the tree is young. Large limbs do not recover easily from pruning, which can have a deleterious effect on the health of the tree in the long term. The bark of the magnolia can be easily damaged so take care when mowing around the tree or using a weed eater.

If you decide that you would like to transplant your tree, do it while it is very young. They do not transplant well once the trunk is 4 inches or larger in diameter. Make sure the tree drains well and does not have “wet feet.” Only the sweetbay magnolia can tolerate those conditions.


Chores for the May Gardener

Plant more warm season annuals, such as salvia, impatiens, begonias, and caladiums, to add instant color to the garden. Make sure to buy healthy plants so that you do not spread disease in the landscape.

Now is the time to take cuttings of special roses that you would like to root. Try taking 6 to 7 inch cuttings and placing them in a vase of water in your kitchen window. When roots sprout in a month or so, plant them in small clay pots with new, light potting soil. Then monitor the moisture, making sure that they are always moist. By the end of the summer, you might have a new plant to transplant to the garden.

• Daylilies are almost at their peak. Now is a great time to visit local nurseries to add new varieties to the garden.

• Remove seed pods from daylilies when they appear.

• Deadhead perennials and annuals so that they look neat and tidy.

• Prune azaleas and other early spring blooming shrubs after the blossoms have faded.

• Fertilize shrubbery with an organic fertilizer, such as Plant-tone, or a balanced fertilizer, such as 10-10-10.

• Feed annuals with a light solution of water-soluble fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro.

• Keep planting beds edged and weed-free to maintain a well-maintained garden.

• Monitor the amount of rain received. Adjust irrigation accordingly, or water by hand.

• Adjust the timer for a low voltage light to come on a little later in the evening. Replace any bulbs that have burned out.

• Bring your indoor plants outdoors for some fresh air. Nestle them under a tree to protect them from the harsh sun, and water as necessary.

What’s blooming? Make sure to drive down Senate Street near Trinity Cathedral to see the beautiful row of vitex in full bloom. Other bloomers include butterfly bush, magnolia, oakleaf hydrangea, rhododendron, pomegranate, ligustrum, spirea, coneflowers, daisies, salvia, daylilies, dianthus, iris, stokesia, verbena, snapdragon, hosta, roses, Lady Banks roses, Confederate jasmine, yellow jessamine, kousa dogwood, peony.