When I was a kid, the ladies who worked at the public library in Troy used to float fragrant magnolia blossoms in large bowls of water on the checkout counter. Suddenly, it was as if altos and sopranos had joined the bass and tenor scent of musty books. The combination made quite an impression on me. I guess it’s no surprise that reading and gardening continue to be two of my passions.
The common name of the Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) honors the region where it thrives. As renowned University of Georgia plantsman Michael Dirr boastfully notes: “Yankees would kill to be able to grow this tree.” A few specimens might survive in Boston or New York, but as Dirr says, “Realistically, the great trees are in the South.” They grace the manicured lawns of antebellum mansions and the dusty yards of humble farmhouses alike. My husband planted one next to our now-defunct chicken coop. The roots have burrowed into the fertile dirt the chickens left behind. It’s quickly attaining the statuesque proportions this species is known for. Their size can be overwhelming for those of us with small yards, but varieties such as “Little Gem” allow most everyone (below the Mason-Dixon) to grow this handsome tree. I’ve even seen them happy in containers on a patio or by a front door.
Even though seedlings from a nearby tree sometimes volunteer in piedmont forests, the Southern magnolia’s natural range in North Carolina is limited to the coastal plain. But there’s no reason for us to be jealous – we have other interesting and impressive species of magnolias native to our local forests.
The sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is also a tree of the coastal plain, but occurrences have been documented in Uwharries. The blooms resemble smaller versions of the Southern magnolia, but the fragrance is a little brighter, a bit more lemony. Instead of thick, leathery leaves, these are more delicate in texture, size and appearance. Light green on top and silvery underneath, they flash like schools of fish when they’re ruffled by the wind. Sweetbays are widely available in the nursery trade, but it’s important to do some research and ask a few questions before you purchase one. The varieties can look quite different. I’ve had one that was rather coarse, multi-trunked and entirely deciduous, while another was refined, single-trunked and evergreen.
The cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata) is a species of the mountains and piedmont, so they’re at the eastern edge of their range in our region. Even though they’re fairly common in the Uwharries, it’s easy to miss them in the forest. Their greenish-yellow blooms aren’t as showy as the white ones of the previous species, and they’re typically borne on higher branches. Their fruit resembles a small, bumpy cucumber about the size of a gherkin.
The blooms of the bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) are large and sprawling, but in my experience they aren’t as fragrant. They don’t produce as many blooms, and the flowers don’t last long. No, this species is all about the leaves. Some are as long as my arm. This gives the tree a tropical look. When you run across one in our typical hardwood forest, it seems like an exotic interloper. In North Carolina, they’re found primarily in and around Gaston County and a few other scattered locations. I’m convinced there’s one somewhere in the Uwharries that hasn’t been discovered or documented yet.
Magnolias continue to provide interest long after the blooms are finished. Years ago, my husband’s brother and his family came from Connecticut for a visit. Our niece, who was four or five at the time, was enchanted by the Southern magnolia’s fuzzy seed cones. She picked one up and stroked it and named it “Little Mousey.” I believe she took it home with her. The cones are also popular with wildlife. The seeds are eaten by squirrel, opossum, turkey and quail, as well as songbirds such as the yellow-bellied sapsucker and red-eyed vireo. Clearly, Yankees aren’t the only ones who covet these magnificent trees.
For more information about using our native magnolias in your garden, there’s no better source than Michel Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. As the quotes above indicate, it’s a livelier read than the title might suggest.
See more of Ruth Ann's magnolia photos below.