I recently attended the Southern Garden History Society's annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, and had the pleasure of viewing many blooming Southern magnolias along the way in Louisiana (their state flower) and Mississippi (their state tree).
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 even the emblem of the Southern Garden History Society (southerngardenhistory.org). 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 be mesmerized.
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 more than 100 cultivars of Southern magnolia, including the popular semi-dwarf Little Gem and the brown-backed Bracken's Brown Beauty and D.D. Blanchard.
It's important to realize that "evergreen" magnolia foliage is not truly evergreen. Each year when the new foliage emerges, the oldest leaves turn yellow and fall off. This prompts annual concern. It's perfectly natural and unavoidable, however. Another dilemma the Southern magnolia poses is whether to 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, especially turfgrass. I prefer allowing the branches to grow all the way to the ground, and avoiding having to worry about fallen magnolia leaves and sun-starved grass.
The Southern magnolia was introduced to England around 1734 but never thrived in the chilly climate there. 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. Though they are considered easy to grow, because of their bottomland origins, they generally need deep mulching and deep watering once a month during June, 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. He is co-author of "Heirloom Gardening in the South" and "The Rose Rustlers." You can read his "Greg's Ramblings" blog at arborgate.com and his "In Greg's Garden" in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com). More research-based gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu and plantanswers.com.