Posts Tagged Magnolia ashei

Magnolia Mania

Magnolia grandiflora blooms for several weeks in May-June.

Magnolia grandiflora blooms for several weeks in May-June.

I am a self-confessed obsessive gardener, meaning that I remain perpetually transfixed by the infinite beauty and variety of the botanical world. But beyond my general obsession, certain species of plants are special objects of my devotion. One plant family in that category: Magnolia.

Seriously, what’s not to adore? The trees are statuesque in their own right, and their flowers — oh, my goodness, the flowers. Plus, if you have room in your yard, as I do on my five-acre patch of Piedmont, you can plant an array of magnolias that will bloom from late winter right through early summer. Magnolia mania indeed!

In my yard, the show starts with Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star.’ The sweetly fragrant, strappy, white-petaled flowers on this specimen cover my 25-foot-tall tree in hundreds of blossoms. This one is a gamble in my climate, because of the hazard of late freezes. Most years, my Royal Star blooms are glowing in the barren late-winter landscape until a hard freeze turns them a sad brown. Sometimes, closed buds (so fuzzy I sometimes pet them as I would a feline friend) survive the chill to produce more white flowers amid the browned early victims. This year, however, was different. Somehow this year we had below-normal temperatures without sudden plunges into the deep freeze. My Royal Star Magnolia bloomed unblemished for six weeks — a record.

While Royal Star was still blooming, Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’ opened its canary-yellow blossoms. My specimen tree is now at least 25 feet tall, maybe 30. This year, a warm spell caused the flowers almost simultaneously to open from the top of the tree to the bottom. The effect was staggeringly exquisite, not to mention almost overpoweringly fragrant, but short-lived. The flowers of Butterflies need a bit of chill in the air to keep them happy. Sudden warmth caused the petals to brown and fall a mere two days after the flowers had opened.

A week after Butterflies had come and gone, Magnolia acuminata ‘Elizabeth’ copied Butterflies’ performance. Two days of top-to-bottom pale yellow, sweet flowers (on a 50-foot tree) were followed by brown petals carpeting the ground beneath it. But those two days of peak bloom were spectacular. My long-time arborist happened to stop by that day for a tour of the yard. He and his companion pulled five feet in the driveway and stopped cold, their mouths agape, as they absorbed Elizabeth’s magnificence. They stayed there so long, I walked down to meet them, breaking their enthrallment with this captivating specimen.

You’ll find photos of the above beauties at the links provided. M. stellata is not native to North America, but M. acuminata is. Horticulturalists have long recognized the potential of M. acuminata, resulting in zillions of lovely cultivars. They are the mere beginning of the procession of magnolia loveliness in my yard.

I confessed a fondness (okay, obsession is probably a better word) with the native big-leaved magnolias when I told you about the single flower on our Bigleaf Magnolia last year here. But I grow three other native big-leaved species, and one of those bloomed for the first time this year.

Magnolia fraseri (Fraser Magnolia) occurs naturally in the mountains of North Carolina, its range extending a smidge into South Carolina, and further into states adjacent to NC to the north. In the wild, it can grow to 60 feet. I sited my specimen on the north side of my yard inside the deer fence beneath the shade of towering loblolly pines about 75 years old. My goal was to keep the tree cool during our hot summers. The tree put on quite a growth spurt last year, shooting up several feet. This spring, it produced seven flowers at the ends of its upper branches over the space of about three weeks. The flowers were sweetly fragrant, but they were too high up for me to photograph well. Here’s a long-range shot that at least gives you a side view:

As is true of all the big-leaved magnolia clan, the flowers are large.

As is true of all the big-leaved magnolia clan, the flowers are large.

Wonder Spouse broke out his big ladder to take some photos from above the flower, but I don’t think he ever sent me the results. I can at least show you the artist at work, about 8 feet off the ground:

Wonder Spouse scales new heights to photograph a Fraser Magnolia flower.

Wonder Spouse scales new heights to photograph a Fraser Magnolia flower.

That’s the top of a gate in our deer fencing at the bottom left. The deer fence is 8 feet tall.

About the time the Fraser Magnolia was blooming, I realized I had neglected to check on our specimen of the only big-leaved magnolia native to the eastern Piedmont: Magnolia tripetala, or Umbrella Magnolia. I rescued this tree from a friend’s family farm just before they sold it. I sited it right next to our creek on a high bank, where it gets plenty of moisture and protection from summer heat by a tall canopy of mature sycamores, birches, tulip poplars, sweet gums, red maples, etc. About fifteen years ago, it was eaten by beavers, but the base re-sprouted, and now the tree is about 25 feet. We surrounded the base with chicken wire to prevent damage from future beaver incursions (if you have water, they will always find you, eventually).

Umbrella Magnolia is so-called, because the large leaves are arranged in a circular fan-like display that absolutely looks like a leafy umbrella. And those giant leaves do a fine job of keeping one dry during light showers. As I feared, I had missed much of the flower display, but a few blossoms were just fading from white to parchment yellow. As with the Fraser Magnolia, the flowers were quite high up, so my photograph is from a fair distance away:

Magnolia tripetala flower fades to parchment yellow before it drops its petals.

Magnolia tripetala flower fades to parchment yellow before it drops its petals.

As the Fraser and Umbrella Magnolias were finishing their blooming cycles, my Ashe Magnolia began its show. This big-leaved beauty astonishes me every year. Last year, a late freeze killed the entire top of the tree. It was just putting out its tender first growth of the season, and the cold brutalized it. I shouldn’t have worried, though. This resilient smaller member of the big-leaved clan simply sprouted from its base. Magnolia ashei is known for its shrubbier form, and mine is true to that description. It’s also known for its prolific bloom production, which starts when the tree is quite young.  Here’s a shot far enough back to give you an idea of the form of my shrubby, lop-sided Ashe Magnolia:

The tip of every branch produced at least one flower. Many produced two flowers per branch tip.

The tip of every branch produced at least one flower. Many produced two flowers per branch tip.

If you have a more typical Piedmont yard, most of the big-leaved Magnolia clan might be too large for the scale of your landscape. But if you have a moist, shady spot and you’re willing to trade a floppy form for spectacular flowers and leaves, Ashe Magnolia is probably your best bet.

If you go to the link I provided for this species, you’ll see better photos of the flowers, but here’s one I took of this year’s final flower:

This year's final flower on Ashe Magnolia.

This year’s final flower on Ashe Magnolia.

The flowers of Umbrella Magnolia are supposed to smell a bit odd to many noses. Mine are so high up that I’ve never noticed much fragrance. However, the Ashe, Fraser, and Bigleaf Magnolias all produce potently sweet perfumes, not unlike the more familiar fragrance of the better-known Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, pictured at the top of this post. My Southern Magnolia is only just beginning her bloom period. She’ll likely perfume my front garden through early July.

I can’t close this lengthy post without showing you what the Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) produced for us this year — a least a dozen, maybe more, flowers! It’s gotten so tall that it’s hard to see what’s going on up there.

Wonder Spouse was so excited that he got back on the big ladder to document the occasion:

Sacrificing personal safety for his art, Wonder Spouse spent about a half hour documenting the Bigleaf Magnolia's floral display.

Sacrificing personal safety for his art, Wonder Spouse spent about a half hour documenting the Bigleaf Magnolia’s floral display.

Aerial shots really are best for showing off the flowers:

Note the giant leaves surrounding the flower. That's a quarter sitting on the lower petal.

Note the giant leaves surrounding the flower. That’s a quarter sitting on the lower petal.

Here’s a closer view:

The petals are as thick and creamy as those of our more familiar Southern Magnolia.

The petals are as thick and creamy as those of our more familiar Southern Magnolia.

That’s his quarter in there again for scale. Here’s what the flower buds look like before they open:

Impressive in their own right, don't you think?

Impressive in their own right, don’t you think?

And because a wind gust had pulled off a leaf, Wonder Spouse used his quarter to give you a sense of the size of individual leaves of Bigleaf Magnolia:

The leaves turn a lovely buttery yellow in the fall.

The leaves turn a lovely buttery yellow in the fall.

This post grows lengthy, so I’ll stop for now. But I should admit for the record that I can think of at least three more magnolia specimens in my yard that I haven’t told you about yet — one more native, and two choice Asian cultivars that still haven’t bloomed for me yet. More magnolia mania to look forward to!

My shot of one of the last Bigleaf Magnolia flowers as it fades to parchment yellow before dropping its petals to the ground.

My shot of one of the last Bigleaf Magnolia flowers as it fades to parchment yellow before dropping its petals to the ground.


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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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Beauty and the Beasts

A few days ago when the first Periodical Cicadas Brood XIX made their appearance in my back yard, I was intrigued. They were a novelty, something to photograph that you don’t see every day. However, yesterday morning when I stepped onto my back deck, I was greeted by hundreds of freshly emerged cicadas. They covered the deck rails, the flooring, and even the walls of my house, thusly:

The emergence decorates my walls

Yesterday afternoon when I realized that my Ashe Magnolia (Magnolia ashei) was beginning to open its numerous flower buds, I went to get a few photos, only to discover that the cicadas liked my Ashe Magnolia as much as I do. Here’s the lovely tree — about 15 feet tall — from a distance yesterday afternoon:

Ashe Magnolia tree about to open its flower buds

It was littered with larval shell carcasses, like this:

Do they like the big leaves?

Still, I wasn’t too creeped out. The leaves of this tree are enormous; I figured they could handle supporting these newly emerged creatures until they were ready to fly higher and begin their eerie thrumming calls.

Quite a few newly emerged cicadas were on the back deck again this morning. But as I watched a fat Gray Squirrel devouring one with gusto, I thought, “Maybe this isn’t so bad; maybe the wildlife will keep this emergence under control.”

From my window, I noticed that the Ashe Magnolia flowers were more open this morning, so I ran out to take a few shots … insert horror movie soundtrack here:


They’re not eating the flowers or the leaves, but they are marring the regal beauty of the flowers. For comparison, I looked at another nearby deciduous magnolia — Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) growing about 60 feet from the Ashe Magnolia. My Bigleaf Magnolia didn’t bloom this year, but its leaves are even larger than those of the Ashe Magnolia.

Can it be that the sweet perfume of these flowers is attracting all these red-eyed monsters? I have no idea, but I do know it creeped me out to see my lovely tree overtaken by these invaders.

Here’s a shot that gives you a sense of the size of the leaves and flowers of Ashe Magnolia:

Have mercy!

And now that I have grossed you out, let me tell you briefly why I love this native Magnolia. Many botanists consider Ashe Magnolia to be a subspecies of Bigleaf Magnolia; instead of calling it Magnolia ashei, they call it M. macrophylla, var. ashei. I imagine only a DNA analysis of the two will settle the debate, and I don’t really care.

I can tell you that Ashe Magnolia’s leaves and flowers do very much resemble those of Bigleaf Magnolia. However, Bigleaf Magnolias can grow to great heights, and they tend to be unenthusiastic about blooming until they are quite tall.

Ashe Magnolia, on the other hand, blooms when it is small; mine first bloomed when it was only four feet high. Its growth habit is usually described as shrubby, and it does produce a number of side branches that make it resemble a shrub, sort of. It is supposed to top out at about 20 feet, but I have a feeling mine may grow higher than that. Now that mine is 15 feet tall, it is blooming spectacularly. Instead of single flowers, many branches sport two-bud or three-bud flower clusters. It’s a Magnolia flower bonanza, and each flower is at least six inches across, usually more!

I would be remiss if I didn’t attempt to describe the fragrance. It is sweet, but not as cloying as M. grandiflora. I much prefer the scent of Ashe Magnolia. Its flowers are not as many-petaled as M. grandiflora, but it is still unmistakably a classic Magnolia family flower.

Here’s a final close-up of an open flower — no cicadas in sight — so that you can appreciate why I love this deciduous Magnolia so much:

So lovely

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Spring brings life … and death

Skeletal Surprise

Yesterday as Wonder Spouse and I were wandering around the yard picking up sticks, I stumbled upon the above. It was nestled in some dead Bamboo Stiltgrass next to the creek. I think it was a baby deer from last season. I know that does hide their newborns and fawns in tall grass while they forage, and I worried that some disaster had befallen this one’s mother so that she never returned, leaving this little one to starve to death.

But Wonder Spouse, who has much more experience with skeletons that I do, took one look and pronounced it a stillborn, basing his conclusion on the small size of the skeleton. As I took pictures of it this morning before I buried it, I realized that I can’t see any front leg bones. The skeleton is remarkably undisturbed; the back legs and even the tail bones are quite evident. Unless I’m just not seeing those front legs, perhaps Wonder Spouse is right and this was a stillborn, one with a mutation too severe to survive.

As much as deer damage to my plants makes me crazy, you’d think I’d rejoice in the knowledge that at least one didn’t mature to dine on my daylilies. But there’s something about young ones; death of such innocents, regardless of species, always hurts my heart.

My heart was already aching from the disaster that befell my state this past Saturday. North Carolina often gets strong spring storms that occasionally spawn tornadoes. But it is very rare for us to be subjected to multiple, long-track supercell-spawned tornadoes — hundreds of them, some miles wide, many traveling for dozens and dozens of miles.

As is usually the case with tornadoes in North Carolina, most of them tormented our Coastal Plain region. The Piedmont was mostly spared. Raleigh, which was hit hard, is right along the fall line — the line that marks the transition between Piedmont and Coastal Plain.

In my barely Piedmont home about 45 miles west of Raleigh, I knew the storms were bad as they boiled the sky above us on their way east. The birds disappeared; wildlife was utterly silent. All of us held our breaths as the barometer fell, the winds tossed trees, and blinding precipitation fell. The winds and unsettled skies persisted for several hours. The birds didn’t re-emerge until the sun showed its face again.

But I barely noticed. I couldn’t stop watching the television coverage of what was happening just to my east — homes and businesses erased, lives lost — leaving me to pray for those suffering, and for a tranquil transition from spring to summer for all of us from this point forward.

In light of this demonstration of spring’s destructive power, I thought it best to conclude with a reminder of spring’s promise of new life. Here’s a growing bud from my Ashe Magnolia (Magnolia ashei). When it opens in a few days, I’ll show you what a spectacular specimen of springtime it can be.

Magnolia ashei flower bud


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