The Complete Guide To Magnolia Trees

When you breathe in the sweet fragrance of the magnolia, you know you're home.

Few plants can be considered as quintessentially Southern as the magnolia. Their big, waxy, glossy leaves juxtaposed with heady, fragrant flowers are familiar sights to Southerners. They bloom in ivory whites, pale yellows, and pretty pinks, with some species flowering in the heat of summer and others blooming in late winter as harbingers of warmer weather to come. These are favorite trees for Southern yards not only because of their perfumed blooms, which are always a draw for gardeners, but also because of their variety. Every gardener has their favorite, and we think there's a magnolia species for every yard. If you don't know which to grow, let us help you pick the right magnolia tree for you. Learn more about these Southern favorites below, with different species, hybrids, and selections that thrive across the varied climates of the South. Then read on for information about planting magnolias, establishing them, and tending them in your yard all year round.

Pink Magnolia
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Magnolia Tree Types

Magnolias belong to the family Magnoliaceae. They're deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs that can most accurately be described as magnificent flowering plants. Magnolia trees are diverse in leaf shape and plant form, and they include both evergreen and deciduous sorts. They aren't usually munched by deer. (An attractive characteristic for gardeners with yards where deer are known to browse.)

Magnolia hardiness varies by species, but most of them thrive in full sun or partial shade with regular water. Their summertime blooms are creamy and thick and their foliage varies from shiny and waxy (see: Magnolia grandiflora) to soft, green, enormous, and shaped like saucers (see: M. macrophylla, also known as bigleaf magnolia). Whether evergreen or deciduous, most magnolias have large, striking blossoms composed of petal-like segments. A few are grown for use as foliage plants. Some even grow big and thick enough to be used as privacy plantings and hedge-type tree plantings.

To help you out, we've classified magnolias by general type, including species, hybrids, and selections. New magnolias seem to appear almost hourly, but most garden centers carry only a few. To track down a prized selection, you'll probably need to hunt through mail-order catalogs.

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Evergreen Magnolias

To many people, the word "magnolia" is synonymous with our native Magnolia grandiflora, the classic Southern magnolia with large, glossy leaves and huge, fragrant white blossoms―the state flower of Mississippi and Louisiana. Few trees can match it for year-round beauty. It does, however, have its drawbacks. Unnamed seedlings often take 10 years after planting before they come into bloom. Dense shade and shallow roots make it impossible to grow grass beneath the canopy, and the roots often crack and lift pavement if the tree is planted between the sidewalk and curb. Though evergreen, the leaves of M. grandiflora can drop 365 days a year. Since the tree grows as wide as 40 feet and up to 80 feet tall, it takes up a lot of garden space. Newer selections like 'Little Gem' only grow to 10 feet wide and 20 feet tall.

Sweet bay (M. virginiana), a smaller tree, is easier to fit into most gardens. Though mostly deciduous in the Upper and Middle South, it's evergreen in the Lower and Coastal South and more cold-hardy than M. grandiflora.

New entries to this group are plants previously listed under the genus Michelia. These trees and shrubs hail from China and the Himalayas and are generally less cold-hardy than other evergreen magnolias, growing best in zone 8 or 9 and warmer. They're renowned for their profuse, wonderfully fragrant flowers, which are borne among their leaves as opposed to the ends of the branches.

Popular Selections

M. grandiflora:'Alta,''Bracken's Brown Beauty,''D. D. Blanchard,' 'Edith Bogue,' 'Little Gem,' 'Majestic Beauty,' 'Samuel Sommer,' 'St. Mary,' 'Symmes Select,' 'Teddy Bear,' 'Timeless Beauty,' 'Victoria'

M. virginiana: 'Henry Hicks,' 'Moonglow,' var. australis 'Mardi Gras,' 'Green Shadow,' 'Sweet Thing,' 'Tensaw'

Saucer Magnolia
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Deciduous Magnolias With Saucer Flowers

This group includes the popular saucer magnolia (M. x soulangeana) and its myriad selections, often called tulip trees because of the shape and bright color of their flowers. They prefer fertile, acid, well-drained soil. They do not tolerate heavy wind or salt spray. Early-flowering selections are prone to frost damage. Related to these, but less tolerant of winter cold and summer heat, are the spectacular magnolias from western China and the Himalayas―Sargent magnolia (M. sargentiana) and Sprenger magnolia (M. sprengeri). Though their early flowers may fall victim to late freezes, one spring season with good blooms will quickly make you forget the disappointments of years past.

Popular Selections

M. x soulangeana: 'Alba Superba,' 'Alexandrina,' 'Black Tulip,' 'Brozzonii,' 'Lennei,' 'Lilliputian,' 'Rustica Rubra,' 'Verbanica'

M. sprengeri: 'Diva'

Pink Magnolia
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Deciduous Magnolias With Star Flowers

This group includes Kobus magnolia (M. kobus), Loebner magnolia (M. x loebneri), and star magnolia (M. stellata). All are cold-hardy, heat-tolerant, adaptable plants with fragrant flowers. The flowers have petals that branch out in forms resembling many-armed stars. Late frosts sometimes damage the early blooms of these magnolias. Several selections of star magnolias bear rosy pink blooms. M. stellata 'Rosea' is also commonly known as "pink star magnolia."

Popular Selections

M. stellata: 'Centennial,''Dawn,' 'Royal Star,' 'Two Stones'

Pink blooms: M. stellata 'Rosea,' 'Jane Platt,' 'Rubra,' 'Water Lily'

Cucumber Tree
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Other Magnolia Species

Less widely planted―but deserving of greater attention―is a group of large-leafed native magnolias generally grown as bold accents or shade trees. Cucumber tree (M. acuminata) and its smaller sibling, yellow cucumber tree (M. a. subcordata), are the source of the yellow blossom color of many new hybrids. Bigleaf magnolia (M. macrophylla), umbrella magnolia (M. tripetala), Fraser magnolia (M. fraseri), and Ashe magnolia (M. ashei) are medium-sized trees with huge leaves and large flowers that appear after the leaves unfurl. In its own category is Oyama magnolia (M. sieboldii), native to western China. It bears drooping, cup-shaped, fragrant blooms after leaves emerge.

Planting Magnolia Trees

For any magnolia, be sure to pick your planting site carefully. Virtually all types are hard to move once established, and many grow quite large, which makes them nearly impossible to move later. The best soil for magnolias is fairly rich, well-drained, and neutral to slightly acid; if necessary, add generous amounts of organic matter when planting. Southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) is good for planting at the beach, though not on dunes. It can stand up to some salty sea breezes. Sweet bay (M. virginiana) tolerates wet soil. The species and selections listed are adapted to a wide range of growing conditions and are easy for most gardeners to grow.

Magnolias never look their best when crowded, and they may be severely damaged by digging around their roots. Larger deciduous sorts are most attractive standing alone against a background that will display their flowers at bloom time and show off their strongly patterned, usually gray limbs and big, fuzzy flower buds in winter. Small deciduous magnolias show up well in large flower or shrub borders and make choice ornaments too. Most magnolias are excellent lawn trees; try to provide a good-size grass-free area around the trunk, and don't plant under the tree.

Balled-and-burlapped plants are available in late winter and early spring; container plants are sold all year. Do not set plants lower than their original soil level. Stake single-trunked or very heavy plants to prevent them from being rocked by wind, which will tear the thick, fleshy, sensitive roots. To avoid damaging the roots, set stakes in the planting hole before placing the tree.

Caring for Magnolia Trees

You canhelp your newly planted magnolias establish themselves in your yard by preventing soil compaction around the root zone. Try to keep foot traffic around the base of the tree to a minimum. Also, prune only when absolutely necessary. Magnolias seldom have serious pest or disease problems, so that shouldn't affect your tree care. They're also rarely browsed by deer or other wild garden visitors. Magnolias thrive in full sun or partial shade with regular water. Ensure your magnolia receives enough water and that it's planted in well-drained soil. Few magnolias tolerate soggy soil. Sweet bay (M. virginiana) is an exception and can thrive in wet areas.

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