Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

Magnolias: Glorious Icon of the Southern Landscape


Of all the flowering trees and shrubs associated with the Southern landscape, nothing captures our senses like the magnolia. Besides being visually stunning—its heady ethereal scent fills the air with a fragrance so sublime that it is utterly  captivating. The memory of it lingers in our  recollection like no other blossom, save the rose and lily of the valley.

In the “Language of Flowers” the meaning assigned to the magnolia is “Nobility, Splendid Beauty and Dignity”. It is perhaps the most regal, yet elegantly sublime tree in cultivation. It stands as sentry in the Southern landscape with a noble and dignified presence like no other. There are over 200 species of magnolia found throughout the world and in eastern North America, Central America, the Caribbean, South America and southeastern Asia. In the United States, there are approximately 90 species. No other flowering tree is more closely associated with Virginia and the South – than the Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).

What’s in a name?

The botanical name “magnolia” was first used by Charles Plumier in 1703 to commemorate the life and work of Pierre Magnol, a 17th century French botanist and professor of medicine. His fellow contemporaries followed suit and the genus became known as “magnolia”. It was unknown at the time, that the magnolia was also documented in Asia, where it is known as the genus Yulania. The ancient Chinese have been cultivating them since the 7th century.

Horticultural Legacies
and Virginia Ties

The native Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) with its deep green evergreen foliage, velvet brown undersides and large waxy blossoms was introduced to British and European gardens in 1731 from Virginia. It was preceded by the introduction of the Sweet Bay Magnolia in 1688, which quickly became as prized a specimen in Europe as it had become in Virginia, for obvious reasons.

Truly no other specimen planting or flowering tree can transform a landscape by providing year round interest, like the Southern Magnolia. It has become the most widely planted flowering tree in the entire world – for good reason.
The native Sweet Bay Magnolia, (Magnolia virginiana) is a faster growing, smaller leaved variety with beautifully scented, small to medium-sized blossoms. The early colonists prized sweet bay magnolia for its blossoms and foliage but also for medicinal purposes and timber, as did Native American, who also built canoes from it. Magnolia bark is still used today in some herbal teas and supplements.

The native Magnolia grandiflora is a towering tree with the large glossy leaves we associate with the magnolia and the dinner plate sized blooms that we have come to know and love so well. Just one placed in a bowl of water can perfume an entire room for days.

Tidewater Virginia’s John Clayton and James Catesby were botanists who identified and illustrated a great many of the native plants found in their scientific travels. John Clayton Memorial Highway (Rt. 14) that runs from Gloucester to Mathews is named for John Clayton. James Catesby’s botanical illustrations of the Southern Magnolia and other flora continue to set the standard for early botanical illustrations and are prized by collectors today. They are featured by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as prints, on fabrics, decorative items and in books. Both men were instrumental in documenting our native magnolias for the entire world. Their legacy and attention to detail still sets the standard today.

John Clayton discovered the native Cucumber Magnolia in 1736 and published his scientific observations of this enduring and hearty variety which is a foundation parent used in modern breeding programs that have resulted in many lovely yellow varieties with some of the most delicate and ethereal colors and scents ever produced.
A drive through the back-roads of Tidewater Virginia will reveal a host of native magnolias of varying habits, colors and blossoms.

Cultivation and Pollination

Interestingly, magnolias are not pollinated by bees or butterflies but by beetles that have been their companion for propagation since the earliest magnolias grew upon the earth 100 million years ago, before the advent of the bee or butterfly. Of all of God’s creation, the magnolia is surely one of the most sublime yet tenacious trees to have ever grown upon the earth, as fossilized remains have been found that date back some 100 million years. It is astonishing that the same genus of plants that brings us such pleasure today has been bringing pleasure and a little slice of heaven to mankind from our first appearing upon the earth.

Here in Virginia, and throughout the South, the magnolia is prized for its blossoms and evergreen foliage that provides interest year round in the garden. The seed pods are unique as well for their decorative value as well as being a valued food source for birds and wildlife.

Magnolias can be grown from seed, however be prepared to wait a while for them to grow and bloom for you. If you have the patience, it is well worth the wait! You might even discover a new cultivar if you have other types of magnolia planted nearby.

Most commercially grown magnolia seedlings are budded onto a more established magnolia root stock. This will result in faster growth and earlier bloom in the garden, verses seedlings.

Growth and Placement in the Garden

Before deciding to grow magnolias – it is important to choose the right soil and location as magnolias need well drained soil that is slightly acidic – like all evergreens, camellias and azaleas. They will not thrive where their feet stay wet or where drainage is poor. Depending on the site, you will want to avoid areas known for strong winds and plant in either full sun to light shade for areas that are prone to long dry spells. You can plant magnolia trees in either spring or fall, however fall planting will allow the deciduous varieties (those that lose their leaves in winter) to become more established during their dormancy. Evergreen varieties will do best planted in early spring.

Keep in mind the mature size of the tree that you are choosing as it will in some cases grow as wide at the base as it is tall. You will want to mulch them in their early years but be sure not to build up mulch around the base of the tree as this will result in suffocation. Pull mulch at least 4" – 6" away from the base and water during dry spells. Magnolia trees will drop leaves each day upon maturity, so be sure to allow for that by growing your tree to the ground or making some other provision to deal with the leaves that will fall. If given the space to grow and proper care, your magnolia tree will reward you with foliage for use all year long and delicately scented blooms to perfume your garden and your home for several weeks each year.

Which Magnolia is Right
for You

Your personal taste and the space you have available in your garden or lot will determine which magnolia is right for you. All magnolias are trees with different leaf shapes, flower sizes, colors and habit. Some will grow to 20' while others, like the great Southern Magnolia will grow up to 70 feet tall.

The four most common types of magnolias grown the most in our region, include:

  • Magnolia stellata, also known as the Star Magnolia. This particular tree is very cold hardy and often grows up north as well. This tree will grow up to 15' wide and tall with oblong leaves 4" – 8" long and about 2 ½ - 3" wide. They will drop all of their leaves in winter and erupt in bloom the following spring like a star burst – hence the name. Their flowers are usually white, with a few cultivars having pink tinged petals. The flowers are 3 – 5" wide with single varieties having around 12 petals per flower and the double varieties having almost 40 petals, also known as “tepals”. They will bloom before the leaves and are a hardy tree with beautiful rounded habit. The Star Magnolia has been used as a parent in hybridizing many of the new varieties because of its beautiful branching qualities.
  • Magnolia grandiflora – also known as the Southern Magnolia. It prefers USDA Zones 7 – 9. It is a native tree here in Virginia and is the most elegant and striking of all the magnolias. They are perhaps the most ornamental of all trees throughout the seasons. Their long glossy dark green leaves are juxtaposed by brown velvet undersides with flowers measuring at times 8" across. They bloom in spring as well as sporadically throughout the summer followed by oblong brown seed pods that hold seeds that ripen to a lipstick red in fall.
  • Magnolia soulangiana – also known as the Saucer Magnolia. It is a large flowered tree that blooms before the new leaves have emerged. They bloom in March/April and rival the dogwood for the shear abundance of their blooms. Their grass green leaves can be 3" – 10" long and are often oval or circular in shape. The flowers range in size from 3" – 12" wide and are available in white, pink and purple varieties. The petals often have a two toned effect as the top and undersides of the petals are often two different shades. The sight of a Saucer magnolia in bloom is often unforgettable. Like all magnolias, they are exquisitely fragrant and fill the landscape with their intoxicating lemony scent. Although smaller than the Southern Magnolia, they will grow to a grand height and w idth and must be given ample space in the garden!
  • Magnolia acuminata – is also known as the Cucumber or Blue Magnolia. Like those listed above, the Cucumber Magnolia is a large deciduous tree, native to North America. Its flowers are often lily like and range in color from pale yellow to a luscious yellow-green. This tree is known for the lovely little green fruits that appear on the tree, similar to cucumbers. They are often tinged a beautiful blue as if the blue highlights were painted on. At maturity the tree can be expected to grow 40 – 80' tall and just as wide at the base. As a young tree it is more oblong or pyramidal in shape, becoming rounded in maturity. Some Cucumber Magnolias have been known to reach almost 100' in the wild, so give it room!

Magnolias are best planted as specimen plantings, for shade, as a long living hedge (given the room). They are exquisite flowering and towering trees, available in white, yellow, pink and purple varieties.

Each unique variety brings its own worth to the garden! Your local nursery or garden center or specialty magnolia grower is the place to start seeking advice on which magnolias are available in your area. Should you find yourself passionate about magnolias and wish to know more about this absolutely splendid tree, the Norfolk Botanical Garden has a living Magnolia Collection on exhibit year round that is well worth the drive to see.

Here in Virginia, we are blessed to be surrounded by such great towering witnesses of days gone by, who give so much for such minimal care. The Magnolia has stood the test of 100 million years and as such is a mesmerizing and intriguing tree without equal. The great estates in our region, home-places, parks and established urban neighborhoods all have one thing in common — it is the intoxicatingly fragrant and utterly breathtaking magnolia!