Lovely Magnolias

“Where stately oaks and broad magnolias…”

“Where the magnolia blossoms fill the air. Yeah, an’ if you ain’t been to Heaven, then you ain’t been there.”

Two song lyrics referencing a true classic – the southern magnolia. The LSU amla mater honors the many magnolia trees across campus. Gary U.S. Bonds sung about the sweet fragrance of the flowers that fills the air this time of year. Take a trip to New Orleans or any southern city and you are sure to see southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) trees prominently featured in the landscape.

M. grandiflora is probably the most well known of our native magnolia trees. Thanks to introductions of cultivars such as ‘Teddy Bear’ and ‘Little Gem’ which stay under 30 feet in height and 15 feet in width, they can be used in small yards. It also happens to be the only evergreen in the Magnoliaceae family. It is commonly found growing wild in bottomlands and moist wooded areas of the Mid-Atlantic region south to Florida and west to Texas.

With its conical shape, dark glossy leaves, and large creamy white blooms, there is no doubt the southern magnolia is one of the most important trees to southern culture. These trees seemed to stand the test of time…even becoming a metaphor for toughness thanks to the movie “Steel Magnolias”.

Unfortunately, these classical southern beauties suffered in the drought and extensive heat of last summer. I noticed around mid-August of last year many of them turning brown – not a good sign for evergreen trees. Some of them were completely defoliated by September. Many of these trees either didn’t leaf out in the spring or they have many dead branches. Our steel magnolias were severely affected by last summer's drought and regrettably many will be lost.

I have one ‘Little Gem’ magnolia planted at home which suffered some dieback during the drought, but it seems to be recovering this spring. Last week I noticed a small wild southern magnolia tree growing in a “naturalistic” portion of yard next to a water oak and wild pecan tree. Despite the drought, these trees will continue to survive, even if we must replant the ones we lost.

Of more than 130 species of magnolias around the world, five species are native to our state. Although the southern magnolia is the most planted, the other species have interesting characteristics and are worth including in your yard if you have the space. You may have even run across these on a hike in the woods.

Cucumber-tree (M. acuminata) is a deciduous, large, rounded tree reaching heights of 75 feet or more. It has long deep green leaves with flowers that are usually light green to yellow in color. It is typically found in upland areas along stream banks.

Bigleaf magnolia (M. macrophylla) is an interesting tree in that it has the largest leaves (up to 3 feet long) and flowers (up to 14 inches across) of any native nontropical plant in North America. I came across one for sale last November and of course I had to buy it. These deciduous trees grow best in part shade along wooded slopes. They can get very tall, but often stay around 50 feet.

Pyramid magnolia (M. pyramidata) is probably the least common in Louisiana. This semi-deciduous tree prefers partly shaded, upland sites with rich, acidic soils. These are shorter trees, often staying under 35 feet in height.

Sweetbay (M. virginiana) is the second most widely distributed native magnolia in Louisiana. This deciduous (sometimes semi-evergreen) tree shares many of the same characteristics of the southern magnolia. It typically reaches around 15-35 feet in height and has smaller flowers (2-3 inches). This tree does well in full sun to part-shade. It is an excellent specimen tree for the landscape and highly adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions.

Enjoy the sweet fragrance of the magnolia blossoms and stay on the lookout for some of our other native magnolia trees in bloom right now.

Magnolia flower.
5/23/2024 4:08:45 PM
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