In 1757, Dr. Alexander Garden, of Charleston, South Carolina, called Magnolia grandiflora “the finest and most superb evergreen-tree that the earth produced.”
Garden, the namesake for our beloved gardenia, may have been correct. The late, great Southern horticulturist Henry Nehrling, of Florida, even called it the most beautiful tree in the world. This is no ordinary tree. Right now they are perfuming gardens across East Texas with the scent of lemon cream pie.
No other flower, perhaps no other plant, evokes images of the South the way the grand Southern magnolia does. It is the emblem of the Southern Garden History Society (southerngardenhistory.org) and the state flower of both Louisiana and Mississippi. This stateliest of evergreen trees is native from East Texas to North Carolina and can reach an immense size (up to 100 feet) on deep river bottom soils in the wild. For early American naturalists and gardeners, to see this tree, with its large glossy leaves and huge fragrant flowers, was to fall in love.
The genus is named for Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), who was professor of medicine and director of the botanic gardens in Montpelier, France. Grandiflora refers to the huge, intoxicatingly fragrant flowers. Today there are many cultivars of Southern magnolia including the popular semi-dwarf Little Gem and the brown backed Bracken’s Brown Beauty.
It’s important to realize that green or brown backed, evergreen magnolia foliage is not truly evergreen. Each year when the new foliage emerges, the oldest crop of leaves turns yellow and falls off. This prompts numerous phone calls to county extension offices and local call-in garden shows. It’s perfectly natural and unavoidable however. Another dilemma the Southern magnolia poses is whether a person should let the branches grow naturally to the ground or to “limb them up” exposing the lower trunk. Both options have their fans. Just realize that it’s virtually impossible to grow anything beneath the dense shade cast there, especially turfgrass. I prefer allowing the branches to grow as nature intended, all the way to the ground, and avoiding having to worry about fallen magnolia leaves and sun-starved grass.
The Southern magnolia was introduced into England around 1734, but never thrived in the chilly climate there. This fits a rule that I have developed over the years: If it thrives in England, it won’t grow in the South, and if it sulks in England, it probably belongs in the South. The English also don’t do well with crape myrtles, cannas and crinums, which prefer warm summers and mild winters like our Southern magnolia.
Magnolias require deep, acidic, well-drained soils. The exception is the moisture-loving sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). The magnolia’s love of well-drained, acidic soils makes them somewhat problematic in the alkaline areas of Texas, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio. Though they are considered easy to grow, because of their bottomland origins they generally need deep mulching and supplemental irrigation during the months of July and August.
It’s hard to resist the enduring allure of magnolias. Our gardens wouldn’t be the same without them.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and co-author of The Southern Heirloom Garden. You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com or read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com). More gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu.