Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist There is nothing more majestic


Bob Gilbert

than a mature evergreen full-grown Magnolia grandiflora. And when it blooms it becomes speculator. The blooms are large, creamy white, showy and very fragrant. I have to say that I am always reminded when I see this tree in bloom about going into Wal-Mart one time in early June. Right by the front entrance was a large display of plastic wedding flower bouquets. The principle fake flowers were huge Magnolia grandiflora blooms. Now you do not have to wait until June or go to Wal-Mart to enjoy magnolias; you can have a real one blooming in your own yard. Magnolia Grandiflora is often called Southern Magnolia or Bull Bay. The leaves resemble a native bay tree and bull because they are large. It has the reputation of being marginally hardy in Franklin. But they have been occasionally planted here and every one that I have seen is healthy and vigorous. If you are not convinced, there is one variety or cultivar called “Edith Bogue” that is hardy all the way to Connecticut. I am not sure about its availability. Fortunately, there are a number of other selections that are hardy here for sure. Magnolias were named to honor a French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715). He was the first to promote the idea of grouping plants into families. This is another one of the few plants whose genus and common name are the same. For years Magnolias were propagated only from seeds. As a result, there used to be a great deal of variation in size, shape and even bloom. Just recently someone has figured out how to propagate them from cuttings. Previously that was almost impossible. So modern cultivars are now more uniform and predictable. There are 210 flowering Magnolia species world-wide. Magnolia grandiflora is native along the coast of North Carolina to central Florida west to Texas. However, it is grown in warm areas around the world. There are several other native Magnolias in North Carolina such as Sweet Bay- Magnolia virginiana, Earleaf-Magnolia fraseri. Umbrella-Magnolia tripetala, Cucumber tree -Magnolia accuminata, and Big leaf- Magnolia macrophyllia. All have similar but have smaller blooms and all are deciduous except for grandiflora. Two very popular introductions from Japan are Magnolia stellata, Star Magnolia and Magnolia x soulangiana or Saucer Magnolia. The blooms of both are very sensitive to cold. Fortunately, not all the blooms open at once. As a result, there will always be a period with undamaged flowers blooming. An attractive feature of magnolias is their 4 to 5- inch seed pods. Exposed on the surface are bright red seeds favored by birds, especially the Pileated Woodpecker. The red soft outer seed coating has an inhibitor in it that prevents seed germination. However, if a seed passes through a digestive system such as that of a bird, the outer coating is eliminated so the seed can germinate. Alternatively the seeds can be soaked in water so that the coating be easily removed manually. We had a very old hedge row of magnolias planted by previous owners that were more than 50 years old. The trees produced huge numbers of blooms and seeds that were deposited everywhere by birds. Consequently, we had magnolia seedlings growing all through our woods. I have never read that magnolias are invasive but I would have to say at this one site they are a problem. Magnolias are a primitive genus as fossils have been found that are 20-plus million years old. These plants evolved before there were bees so they depend on beetles for pollination. Magnolia grandiflora leaves are often coated underneath with a brown pubescent coating called an indumentum or ruff. There is a cultivar called “Bracken’s Brown Beauty” which is very popular having been developed by a nursery in Easley, S.C. It is hardy all the way to Ohio. It is easily identified by its brown indumentum. Many people cut magnolia branches and put them in empty fireplaces for decoration. The leaves stay dark green and shiny for a very long time even when completely dried out. There is a new and popular cultivar called “Little Gem” that was introduced by Seed’s Nursery in Candor, N.C. It is a compact form with smaller leaves and slightly smaller flowers. It reaches only 13 feet when mature. Sometimes, it is referred to as a dwarf which it is not. It is simply a low growing compact form. It blooms even when young in contrast to grandiflora. Planting magnolias add grace and charm to any landscape. Often you see them that have been limbed up, the lower branches removed. Personally, I think the tree is more attractive with its lower branches left at ground level. Plus the trunks are really not that interesting. Also, the lower branches will visually cover the exfoliated leaves so they are not so apparent. This brings up one distinct grandiflora disadvantage. They drop their old leaves almost all year round. Their evergreen leaves are waxy and thick and do not decompose rapidly or maybe never breakdown? They accumulate and tend to shingle in layers creating a moisture barrier. For this reason, I would not recommend planting a grandiflora close to your house. Plant one far enough away to enjoy and so you will not be compelled to continually rake up leaves. Put one by your front door and you will hate it. If you live on a small lot give one to your neighbor. Dr. Bob Gilbert, now living in Franklin is cofounder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw Ga. Karen Lawrence is a professional photographer of botanicals and wildlife who lives in Franklin.Magnolia grandiflora a southern beauty