Magnolia to the Max: Bigleaf Magnolia

Wonder Spouse in action

I have confessed my fascination with the big-leaved native magnolias several times in this blog. The biggest of all these related species is Magnolia macrophylla, or Bigleaf Magnolia. This tree produces the largest flowers and leaves of all native North American species (except for tropical palms). Flowers are typically eight to fourteen inches across, and leaves can be up to one foot wide and three feet long. You truly have to see one of these trees to fully appreciate its spectacular qualities.

That’s Wonder Spouse in the photo above. I took it this morning as he kindly took some aerial views of the one flower our Bigleaf Magnolia produced this year. I’ve been watching the bud for a little over a week. Today it peaked, and because these flowers don’t last long, we headed out just after sunrise, so that Wonder Spouse could document the Bigleaf bloom.

This tree occurs naturally in bottomland forests and rich wooded slopes. Ours is growing on our north-facing slope under a nearly closed canopy of tall pines, a tulip poplar, water oak, and a massive sweetgum. We planted our tree about fifteen years ago, but it didn’t really start shooting skyward until we removed its protective wire cage after installing deer fencing on that side of the yard.

Last year, this tree also produced one flower, but it was higher up, completely beyond the reach of even Wonder Spouse’s ladder. This year’s bloom on a lower branch seemed ideally suited for photographic documentation. What follows is a series of shots I took as the bud progressed. The series concludes with the photos taken by Wonder Spouse atop his ladder.

May 10: I realize my Bigleaf Magnolia is sporting a fat flower bud, and from a position slightly higher up the hill, I attempt a photo:

Bigleaf Magnolia bud, May 10, 2012

The bud takes longer than I expect to progress, but finally on May 16, I decide it looks larger and take another photo:

Bigleaf Magnolia bud, May 16, 2012

The next day, I realize blooming action is initiating:

Bigleaf Magnolia flower opening, May 17, 2012

The flower opens more fully the following day:

Bigleaf Magnolia flower opening, May 18, 2012

The weather cooled briefly, and the flower seemed to be content to remain only partially open until today. Here’s a shot taken by Wonder Spouse using an angle similar to my shots — before he climbed the ladder:

Bigleaf Magnolia flower at peak bloom, May 20, 2012

Here’s an aerial shot. Note the penny on the lower petal that Wonder Spouse added to provide a sense of scale:

Bigleaf Magnolia flower, aerial view, May 20, 2012

The flowers of this Bigleaf Magnolia display much less purple staining around the base of the petals than does its close cousin, Ashe Magnolia (M. asheii). For comparison, see the photo I took last year in this entry. It’s the last photo in the entry.

Here’s a close-up of the center of the flower, courtesy of Wonder Spouse on his trusty ladder:

Bigleaf Magnolia flower close-up, May 20, 2012

All the magnolia flowers I’ve observed drop their numerous stamens onto the petals in piles, as you see in the photo. As is true for the other native magnolias, the fruits on the central “cone” will turn red, and will likely be devoured by birds before ever falling to the ground.

This magnolia is best suited to larger landscapes, where the size of its leaves and flowers won’t be too overpowering. Its enormous leaves can be shredded by strong winds, so it’s best planted in a sheltered spot. And the richer — and moister — the soil, the happier it will be.

I think this tree is worth catering to its prima donna tendencies for the gasps of admiration it always garners from visitors, and for the sheer coolness of being able to say I grow the tree species with the largest deciduous leaves in North America.

I am, after all, a self-confessed obsessive gardener. 🙂

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  1. #1 by Rebecca Stevens on June 2, 2014 - 9:07 pm

    In 2007 I planted several magnolias here at our new house in Middle Tennessee. I had tried to research different cultivars and chose several different ones to have the best chance of success. (As it turned out, every one thrives!) Last week one of them bloomed for the first time. We live in a rather shady area and I was not surprised it took them a while to produce a flower.

    But what a flower! It is absolutely enormous and looks just exactly like the one in your photo, but these are not big leaf magnolias. What can have happened? Do you think it may be some kind of hybrid or sport? I’ll have to go back and look for my old receipts, but I believe that the one that bloomed is called Claudia Wanamaker, which was advertised as being relatively hardy and having lovely (and normal-sized) blooms.

    There are two more buds developing. They look much like the ones in your picture, though perhaps more narrow. Maybe these blooms will not be as enormous as the first, but if they are, I believe I should notify somebody. Who?

    Thank you for the wonderful pictures.

    • #2 by piedmontgardener on June 3, 2014 - 4:56 am

      Welcome, Rebecca! If you planted the Magnolia variety called Claudia Wanamaker, that is a variety of Magnolia grandiflora, the evergreen, thick-leaved magnolia known and loved by southerners. I looked up this variety, and it is known to be a vigorous grower and an early bloomer, which is why you got flowers this year. When a plant produces just a few flowers, it is not unusual for them to be extra large, so this may account, in part, for the size of the blooms on your evergreen magnolia. And perhaps you planted them in their ideal habitat, so they are responding with enthusiasm.

      If you believe your flowers are extraordinarily large and you want to tell someone, I suggest you try contacting your local agricultural extension agent. Usually at least one of them specializes in home landscape information. You might also try contacting the nursery where you purchased these plants.

      Meanwhile, I suggest you enjoy those magnificent blooms while they last.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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