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 a rainbow of colors, and while some species flower in the heat of summer, others bloom in late winter and act 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. Magnolias produce a wide range of foliage and bloom types with a wonderful diversity of appearance. Every gardener has their favorites, and we think there’s a magnolia species for every yard. Do you have one? If not, let us help you pick the right magnolia tree for you. Learn more about these Southern favorites below, as well as the different species, hybrids, and selections that thrive across the varied climates of the South. If you already have a tree ready to plant or want to brush up on appropriate magnolia care, read on for information about planting magnolias, establishing them, and tending them in your yard all year round.
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—they’re magnificent flowering plants featuring blossoms in white, pink, red, purple, or yellow. 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 zones vary by species, but most all 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.
The following text classifies 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.
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 sidewalk and curb. If you can’t abide leaf drop, this isn’t the magnolia for you, because the leaves of M. grandiflora drop 365 days a year. Since the tree grows as wide as 40 feet, it takes up a lot of garden space. 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. They're renowned for their profuse, wonderfully fragrant flowers, which are borne among their leaves as opposed to the ends of the branches.
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’
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.
M. x soulangeana: ‘Alba Superba,’ ‘Alexandrina,’ ‘Black Tulip,’ ‘Brozzonii,’ ‘Lennei,’ ‘Lilliputian,’ ‘Rustica Rubra,’ ‘Verbanica’
M. sprengeri: ‘Diva’
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.”
M. stellata: ‘Centennial,’ ‘Dawn,’ ‘Royal Star,’ ‘Two Stones,’
Pink blooms: M. stellata ‘Rosea,’ ‘Jane Platt,’ ‘Rubra,’ ‘Water Lily’
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-size 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 planting hole before placing tree.
Caring for Magnolia Trees
You can help 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.
Do you have magnolia trees in your yard? What lessons have you learned while caring for magnolias over the years?