June 4, 2013 /
Marty Frye

Tree of the Month: Southern Magnolia

The Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is the iconic gem of the south that has captured the hearts of so many. When they first discovered it back in the late 17th century, European botanists coveted this ancient and beautiful species. In fact, the earliest specimen established in Britain was set up with a scaffold system the height of the tree with tubs of soil to stick the branches in, creating “layers” that would root in the soil-filled tubs to be transplanted (and sold, no doubt). We are lucky to be able to call this tree our own. Native from the Carolinas south to Florida and west to Texas, the Southern Magnolia grows well through Zone 6 and specimens are reported to survive in Boston and Cincinnati. The Southern Magnolia is the granddaddy of magnolias, with the largest specimens growing past 100 feet tall. Its dense foliage casts a deep shade and if not pruned up this tree’s branches will reach close to the ground. You cannot mistake the leaves of the Southern Magnolia. They are leathery with a shiny dark green on top, and a rich bronze hew and a fuzziness beneath. And of course the flowers are the Southern Magnolia’s charismatic fulcrum. They are 6-8 inches across and pure white. These flowers bloom prolifically in the early summer and can continue to appear in smaller numbers for the rest of the season. One source refers to the fragrance of these flowers as “better than the best perfume.” The Southern Magnolia claims the state flower of Mississippi and Louisiana.

In its native environment, Southern Magnolia thrives in rich, moist areas near streams and swamps, but cannot deal with prolonged soil saturation. This tree can tolerate shade when it is young and reproduces well in established forests. The Southern Magnolia does not respond well to fire. The flowers of this tree are special in that they are pollinated by beetles and flies. In fact, the magnolias family history dates back further than most trees around today to a time before the well-adapted pollinators of today (bees, butterflies, etc.). Magnolia flowers do not provide nectar but rather entice beetles with a prolific amount of pollen as a food source. But beetles also find the flower petals themselves tasty, which is part of why the flowers have evolved to be so thick, so they can stand up to the munching of the beetles.

The Magnolia family of trees has been bred countless times and pedaled around the world for the beauty of its flowers. The native Southern Magnolia is a little taste of raw and authentic wild-crafted beauty here in the South East of N. America. Beauty doesn’t have to be bred down to a miniature size and packaged as a potted plant. It can exist in a mature forest survivor like the Southern Magnolia. If you want to make it part of your landscape this tree demands that you give it some space to grow and it is well worth it. It is a tree that you can pass on to your grand-children and theirs too.

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Flickr credit: MomentsForZen.