Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, needs no introduction around here. The genus Magnolia includes over 200 species, but the word magnolia means one thing in the South: huge white flowers, sweetly scented, on a large broad-leafed evergreen tree. It is most beloved, although sometimes preferred from a distance.
This species is native to the southeastern U.S. from Virginia to Florida, west to Texas and Oklahoma, and is hardy to around 0 degrees. Southern magnolia can achieve truly great proportions, with the record-holders standing well over 100 feet tall and a trunk circumference of more than 17 feet! In landscapes, 40-60 feet tall is much more likely and there are dwarf cultivars that will stay in the 25-foot range.
Southern magnolia is a tree of many interesting facets. The flowers in early to mid-summer can reach a foot across and have a pleasant softly sweet aroma. The fruits ripen late summer into fall with a red blush before opening to reveal the cardinal-red seeds.Wildlife enjoy the seeds, as well as the shelter of the tree in cold weather. In addition, making a magnolia wreath is a beautiful Christmastime tradition in the south. I find the varieties with more of the tan felt-like fuzz on the backs of the leaves are particularly striking for that purpose.
One point to consider if you are thinking of planting a Southern Magnolia is that it is an evergreen. While this may sound like a nice attribute, it can also be a point of contention. You see, evergreen refers to the tree, but the individual leaves will drop in their due season. These large, heavy leaves drop in vast quantities in the spring and early summer as the new growth comes on, and can be a huge nuisance depending on the tree’s location and your outlook on these things. My magnolia is in the back yard, and now that I have a bagger on my mower the leaves are cleaned up weekly where they have fallen on the grass…otherwise they lay on the ground until I feel like cleaning them up.
I inherited my magnolia when I bought the house, but if I were to plant one, here are some things I would do:
- Plant it in a large, open area. This will ensure plenty of sunlight all around that will keep the canopy balanced as it grows, and keep the foliage dense.
- Never “limb up” the tree. The natural tendency of a southern magnolia is to have foliage all the way to the ground, forming a huge green pyramid. When this foliage is present, no one cares about leaves falling because they stay under the tree.
- Use it as a screen tree in a mixed border with conifers. I abhor the look of a monoculture green wall; instead, mixing conifers and broadleaf evergreens is effective while having a more natural look.
- Consider the options available. There are options for different sizes as well as subtle differences in appearance. It’s important to know what you’re getting, as well as what you can get.