Magnificent Magnolia

Recognize this flower? Most southerners know it well. Magnolia grandiflora — Southern Magnolia or Bull Magnolia to her friends — is a familiar symbol of the South. Technically, it wasn’t originally native to the southeastern piedmont. The species originated in coastal swamps and bay forests from NC to Mississippi. But such a beauty was, of course, cultivated by botanists and made available to those of us who dwell further inland. Until recently, all you could find were plants that would eventually become 60-foot evergreen dominatrixes of the landscape.  Now, numerous cultivars are available that only grow to twenty-five feet or so — a much better fit for the  postage stamp lots of many suburban neighborhoods.

See all the honeybees cavorting on the petals? Southern Magnolia flowers are known for their potent perfume, and the nectar is clearly irresistible to pollinators.  When you multiply the power of that perfume by the hundreds of flowers adorning a mature 60-foot specimen, you have a tree that’ll smack you in the face a hundred yards away as the scent hangs in humid late May/early June air.  The fragrance always seems extra potent on warm nights, because the winds are usually still, so the tree is able to surround itself with an invisible wall of perfume.

How I came to appreciate this native

For many years, I did not appreciate this tree’s assets. I’m allergic to the fragrance of the flowers. Being next to a mature magnolia in bloom sends my nose into fits of sneezing followed by congestion. And I associated it with southern plantation aristocracy. I grew up with the descendants of those folks, and well, let’s just say I wasn’t one of them and leave it at that.

But when we moved to our current home, a large tree was already here, close to the entry. It’s about 40 feet tall now, and I’m pretty sure it was just a seedling that the previous owner planted. He was not a plant cultivar kind of guy.  We decided to live with it, because it was quite a specimen, and the shade it offered on the hot western side of the house was very welcome on summer afternoons. We limbed it up so that I could plant shade-tolerant beauties beneath it, and a wooden bench offers a shady respite — a favorite napping spot for cats.

A wildlife bonanza

But it was only after living with this tree for a few seasons that I began to appreciate its real beauty. In late summer/early fall, the fat “cones” begin to extrude bright red seeds that dangle on a filament, so that the seeds look like ornaments hanging on a Christmas tree. These fleshy carmine fruits must be quite tasty and nutritious, because almost every creature that lives nearby descends on my magnolia when the cones open. It sounds like a raucous party from sunrise to sunset. Woodpeckers — red-bellied, pileated, hairy, and downy — all demonstrate their acrobatic skills as they maneuver their way in to grab a seed, cussing in woodpeckerese the entire time, of course. Gangs of robins battle the woodpeckers, while polite and colorful warblers dash in and grab a fruit when they see an opening. The squirrels come too, of course. They just bite off entire cones and carry them down to the bench, where they devour seeds and cone, leaving piles of magnolia debris behind. And even two weeks ago, long after the cones had shriveled up and many had fallen to the ground, I discovered a flock of cedar waxwings fluttering and muttering high in the tree as they meticulously examined every undropped cone, extracting seeds that had never been extruded.

An emerging issue: the invasive potential of this species in the piedmont

A down side to the attractive fruit of this tree is beginning to emerge. Birds eat the fruits, fly to adjacent forests, and “deposit” their seeds on the forest floor, where the seed often germinates. When this happens in a favorable location in the southeastern piedmont, seedlings can be quite numerous.  Because this species originated in swampy coastal forests, it likes our river and wetland forests. And because it is evergreen, it can outcompete and even eventually dominate the native forests of these areas. My field botanist friends tell me that there are patches of local river forests in my area that have become solid magnolia forests at the expense of the natives. That includes all the little wildflowers — spring ephemerals, they’re called — that bloom and die back before the deciduous canopy closes over them every spring. But now the magnolias are blocking out their light, and the wildflowers are disappearing.

The invasiveness of this species compared to the scourges of piedmont floodplains — Chinese and Japanese privets — is not as severe, not even close. But it is a growing concern among ecologists who monitor our remaining forests.

I do spot bird-planted seedlings in my yard and, occasionally, in the nearby woods. They pull up fairly easily. For now, I’ve decided to leave my Southern Magnolia alone. So much wildlife relies on it for food, and it’s so much fun to watch them collect it that I just can’t talk myself into cutting it down. At least not yet. As more of my woody wildlife food source plants mature and become significantly productive, I’ll revisit my decision.

Many other native magnolia options

Meanwhile, I have developed a great fondness for other members of the Magnolia genus, especially the big-leaved deciduous species native to the southeastern piedmont. I’ve planted specimens of most of them on the north side of my yard, where they are protected by a high canopy of tulip poplars, sweet gums, water oaks, and river birches. I’ll tell you all about these other trees another time.

And for now, the Southern Magnolia up front will continue to perfume and feed the neighborhood.

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