Posts Tagged Magnolia Family
I freely admit that I think our native deciduous magnolias are very special trees. Yes, I love the drama of our evergreen Southern Magnolias as much as the next person, but the big-leaved deciduous magnolias provide even higher theater for those willing to accommodate their needs.
I took all these pictures of my Ashe Magnolia today. This relatively small, somewhat lop-sided tree blooms for weeks — blooms on top of blooms, as you can see from the first photo. And the blooms are enormous, as are its leaves. As soon as the buds begin to open, the flower’s perfume scents the air. I can’t imagine a blooming tree with more wow factor than Ashe Magnolia.
As the flowers fade, piles of spent stamens collect on the petals. And, oh yes, the perfume still sings.
As the seed cone grows, ivory petals turn parchment brown, eventually falling to the ground, stamens tumbling after.
I sited my thriving Ashe Magnolia on the north-facing side of my yard inside a deer-fenced area beneath tall canopy trees that give it ample shade. It likes soil moisture, so I planted it on the bottom of the slope. After pampering it for a year, I’ve done nothing except admire this amazing tree. Late freezes have knocked it back several times, but it just resprouts and continues to bloom more spectacularly every year. Oh, how I love this tree!
But wait — there’s more big-leafed news. My Magnolia macrophylla, Bigleaf Magnolia, is about to explode into bloom even as its smaller cousin, Ashe Magnolia, continues its display. Our Bigleaf Magnolia is now about 25 feet tall, and the flower buds are way over my head, so forgive me for these less-than-optimal photos. However, you do get a sense of the scale of the leaves of this mighty Magnolia, and the size of the buds relative to the leaves. These leaves grow longer than the length of my arm every year, providing a somewhat tropical look to my landscape.
I can see at least 15 flower buds on the Bigleaf Magnolia, and I suspect there are more too high for me to easily see. The flowers are opening quickly, thanks to the onset of our summer heat. I don’t think they’ll last long, given that we haven’t had a decent rain in four weeks. But for now, I will stand beneath this growing beauty admiring the blossoms and leaves, and inhaling the fragrance. Aroma therapy at its best.
Not to be outdone by her deciduous big-leaved sisters, my Southern Magnolia is about to explode into her own floral display. My tree is 50 feet tall, and I don’t even want to try to count how many flower buds it has. For certain, as our air humidifies and heats up later this week, I know every sultry morning will be heavy with the perfume of her blooms. Flowers of Southern Magnolia are not as large as those of her deciduous sisters, but she produces more petals per bloom, creating her own kind of floral drama. As the flowers open, this tree will hum with day-long visits from my neighbor’s honeybees.
Here’s hoping your Memorial Day holiday is as sweet as mine promises to be.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Aerial shots really are best for showing off the flowers:
Here’s a closer view:
That’s his quarter in there again for scale. Here’s what the flower buds look like before they open:
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:
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!
As predicted, the warm temperatures arrived. Then they went directly to summer-hot temperatures. This week, we are in the 80s, which is too hot, considering that the canopy trees were mostly not even blooming yet. Forget about leaves. No shade. At all. Hot, hot, hot!
Now, of course, everything is exploding simultaneously. Pollen clouds haze the air, tree buds swell visibly, and the critters have all moved into full-out courtship mode. Toads trill from twilight to dawn. Bird song sweetens the air, along with the perfume of deciduous magnolias. Grass needs mowing. Ticks and mosquitoes lurk everywhere, hungry for blood. Ah, springtime in the southeastern piedmont.
I have managed to take a few pictures, but the plants and critters are moving so fast now that I’m having trouble keeping up. The vegetable garden, of course, has taken priority. My beautiful bed of greens that had been huddled under a garden cloth tent for warmth were suddenly too warm in there. But the sun is now too strong for them. Wonder Spouse devised a clever fix. He cut the fabric tent and shaped it into a canopy that protects the lettuces, spinaches, and Asian greens from direct noon-day sun, but allows them access to more gentle angled light and better access to passing rains.
Here’s what the bed looked like last Friday:
Here’s a closer view, so you can more easily see the plants:
Now the greens are large enough for single-leaf harvesting. Instead of waiting for greens to fill out as heads, I harvest individual leaves as they attain salad size. I’ll be picking greens for our first home-grown salad tomorrow morning as the sun comes up. Veggies and herbs are at their harvestable best first thing in the morning before the sun has begun to melt them. I can just about taste those tender sweet greens now…
Meanwhile in the greenhouse, the summer veggies, flowers, and herbs are well germinated and growing strongly. The tomatoes and peppers will need to graduate to larger pots in the next few days. The basils and flowers will take a little longer.
Since my last update, I have also direct-sowed into the garden beds several varieties of carrots and two of beets. I haven’t seen any signs of them yet, but it’s only just now been about a week. I’m hoping that this current bout of summer-like heat will not prevent these cool-weather veggies from germinating well. After this Friday, our temperatures are predicted to return to normal, so I’m hoping the spring garden can hang on until the cooler spring temperatures return. Spring vegetable gardening is always a gamble here. The summer garden is easier. You can almost always count on the weather turning hot enough for tomatoes and peppers to thrive.
Of course, much more is going on all over the yard and gardens. Last weekend, Wonder Spouse helped me re-activate our front water feature:
The pitcher plants in two of the pots are not as robust this year. I allowed far too many cardinal flowers to seed into the pots with the pitcher plants, where they proceeded to outcompete the pitchers. I spent several days digging out several dozen cardinal flowers in the hopes of re-invigorating the pitchers. Now it’s a waiting game to see if they can recover.
The trees are blooming about three weeks later than they did last year. Native redbuds are just opening in my yard:
And my Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is only now pushing out flower buds. Ditto for my Eastern Columbines. Both of these natives are usually open by the beginning of April, just in time for the arrival of Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrating up from their southern winter homes. I hadn’t seen any hummers, but judging by the arrival of my summer warblers, I decided to put out a feeder last Friday. Several hummingbirds were enjoying the feeder by the next morning, and I’ve seen them on it often since. Without their native flowers, they really need the sugar water I offer to help them recuperate from their long migration.
My native coral honeysuckle is usually blooming by now, too. This year, the one on my trellis is only just beginning to produce flower buds. The one draped over a tree stump near the creek is slightly further along. It’s buds at least show color.
The ferns are finally showing signs of life. Here’s a group of naturally occurring Cinnamon Ferns that thrive in my wetland:
Inside my deer fence, my Christmas Ferns are also showing new growth:
I can’t close today’s post without mentioning the currently blooming deciduous magnolias. Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ had a record extended blooming period of six weeks for me. The cool weather kept the flowers fresh, and the cold snaps only browned a few buds. Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’ did not fare as well. When the heat hit it, all the buds opened at once, looked gorgeous for about two days, and now most of the petals have already fallen to the ground, surrendering to summer-like early April heat. But when they were fresh they were lovely.
Here’s the tree last Friday:
Here’s a close-up of the canary-yellow blossoms just as they were opening a few days ago:
As is always the case, my Magnolia acuminata ‘Elizabeth’ is blooming about a week behind Butterflies. Actually, a bit less than a week this year, likely due to our 85-degree day today. Elizabeth is taller than Butterflies. My 17-18-year-old specimen is about 50 feet now, and when the flowers open, the effect is jaw-dropping. Here she is from a distance this morning. I had to stand fairly far back to get all of her in one shot:
Then I took a few steps closer and tried for a shot with as much of the tree in it as possible:
And, finally, here are a few branches closer up, so that you can see the gorgeous flowers.
Elizabeth’s flowers are a much paler yellow than those of Butterflies, and under harsh sunlight, they fade to parchment white. The effect is lovely and more subtle than Butterflies. The flowers of both trees emit a perfume so strong that deep inhalation just about knocks me over. On a spring breeze, I can smell their fragrance across half of my five-acre yard.
There’s more, of course, what with everything exploding simultaneously in the heat. I’ll try to do a better job of keeping you posted here, but there’s just so gosh darn much to do out there. Weeds, for example. They have exploded along with all the invited plants.
But I’m not complaining. Hard work is part of the therapy of gardening. I’ll feel downright righteous when I sit down tomorrow evening to dine on our first garden salad of the year. It really is true, you know. The food does taste better when you grow it yourself.
The Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) in our front yard is about 40 feet tall. It was there when we moved in 23 years ago, growing taller and wider all the time. In May, the heady perfume of paper-white blossoms beckons bees from miles around. The tree hums, fertilized flowers drop browned petals, leaving fattening seed cones to ripen. In late October, the seed cones open to dangle scarlet fruits on gossamer threads. And then the fun begins.
Just as potent a signal as the spring fragrance of the flowers are the gaudy fruits that adorn this tree in fall. Every fruit-loving animal in the neighborhood stops by when the plump red fruits are ready. Squirrels, possums, and raccoons all take their share, but many of the cones dangle at the end of branch tips too thin for mammals. These cones are for the birds.
Tufted Titmice and Chickadees chatter constantly as they cavort from cone to cone. They are often joined by warblers in dull winter plumage, making them harder to identify as they flit in the shadows cast by the Magnolia’s thick evergreen leaves. Woodpeckers — Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy, and the most raucous of all, Pileated Woodpeckers all stop by often, feasting messily on the Magnolia’s abundance.
When the Blue Jays want in on the action, they loudly imitate the call of the Red-Shouldered Hawk. Not wishing to take chances, the little birds all fly to deeper cover, giving the crow-sized jays easy access to the good eats.
Flocks of migrating robins settle onto our property for several days at a time, alternately feasting on the tree, splashing in the bird baths, and resting high in newly bare branches of forest canopy trees.
This week, I’ve noticed three bird species I only see during late fall and winter. The Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers started hitching up and down nut trees, tulip poplars, and magnolias about three days ago. These members of the woodpecker clan stay all winter, and we usually have several residents throughout this season.
The Dark-eyed Juncos showed up at the same time as the sapsuckers. This is unusually early for this species. I usually don’t see them until winter cold settles in for good — early December at the earliest.
And most unusual of all — Red-breasted Nuthatches are appearing at the feeders! We don’t see these lovely little birds every winter. Usually they only appear during profoundly cold winters full of deep snow, when our bird feeders become key to the survival of many feathered friends. I was stunned when I spotted one yesterday on the platform feeder dining on safflower seeds.
Although it’s been unseasonably cool here, it certainly isn’t truly cold, and the only early snows are in the mountains west of us. I think perhaps the northern migrants arrived early because of Hurricane Sandy. The after effects of this massive super storm that devoured the eastern seaboard last week are still causing much suffering in the northeastern US. Wonder Spouse and I have sent our donation to the American Red Cross, and we encourage everyone else to do the same if they can. Folks up north are going to need extra help for some time to come, especially with an autumn nor’easter heading their way later this week.
It’s easy to forget about the wildlife when human suffering is so evident. But those downed trees and drowned wetlands mean death and displacement to many birds and mammals. I think the birds that weren’t destroyed by the storm are opting to fly south ahead of their normal schedules, seeking havens in the southlands, where food and shelter remain fairly abundant.
It’s times like these that I am glad I’ve worked hard for two decades to enhance wildlife habitat — food and shelter — on our five acres of North Carolina Piedmont. Avian refugees are welcome to stay as long as needed. Feeders will remain stocked; bird baths will stay clean and full.
For every falling leaf of scarlet and gold, we send forth prayers for the recovery of humans and wildlife in devastated areas of the northeast — and anywhere else in the world where suffering prevails.
Abundance abounds on my five acres of North Carolina Piedmont. As summer winds down, plants are multiplying with enthusiasm, and native animals are taking full advantage of the bounty. My area saw a week of what the weather seers call “unsettled weather,” which means thick humidity, uncomfortable (but not intolerable) heat, and random thunderstorms. As usually happens of late, my patch of Piedmont was ignored by most of the rain clouds, but we got enough to push plants and animals into a bit of a late summer frenzy.
Butterfly multiplicities are evident on every blooming flower in my yard. Species diversity seems to be multiplying too. I’ll show you in another post. I caught the two above as they were basking in the first sunshine we’ve seen in several days. I think they missed the light as much as I did.
Most of the plants are in the final stages of seed production, filling up seed heads and capsules, preparing to release their progeny into autumn air when it arrives in a few weeks. Here’s a pair of Tulip Poplar “cones.”
All the Tulip Poplars reproduced well this year. I predict I’ll be sweeping their seeds off walks all fall and winter.
Another member of the Magnolia family — Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) — was kind enough to produce one of its spectacular seed heads within range of my camera:
Animal multiplicities include the deafening, constant, ebb and flow of cicada thrumming. They are maximizing their time in the humid air that makes me stick to myself after two minutes outside. Also present in astonishing numbers are the American Robins. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many this time of year. These are not the flocks of spring and autumn migrators that I’m accustomed to seeing. These are local birds — newly adult ones, judging by their very motley breast feathers.
The American Robins are here because of the bumper crop of Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) dominating every untamed corner (we have a lot of those) of the property. Easily eight feet tall with stems thicker than my wrist, these magenta and green very poisonous natives are currently weighed down by the biggest crop of berries I’ve ever seen them produce. The American Robins have claimed this crop for themselves. From dawn to dusk, I hear their muttering and exclamations as they devour every purple berry they discover.
I admit I don’t argue much with this plant. Unless it pops up in a spot that just won’t work, I usually let it have its way. However, if I had children or dogs with a habit of eating fruits in the wild, I would eradicate this plant from my yard. It is extremely poisonous to humans, from its roots to its leaves and berries. Yes, young leaves, if boiled for long periods, are consumed by some as “poke salad,” but I think the dangers aren’t worth the risk. Proceed with caution if you welcome this species into your Piedmont yard.
Also multiplying in my yard: spiderwebs! I can’t walk anywhere without walking into one.
The arachnids even build across our often-used front walk. Every morning this time of year, it’s best to wave a stick in front of you to intersect the webs before your face does.
Multiplicities of fungi are also popping up all over the yard. Today, I encountered this large collection of delicate beauties:
They are quite exquisite up close, as you can see here:
I am not an expert on fungi, so I assume they are all poisonous. I leave them to adorn the landscape and only consume mushrooms I buy at grocery stores.
As summer begins its reluctant transformation to fall, Nature’s multiplicities ensure that next year’s growing season will be productive — barring the usual weather catastrophe caveats, of course.
I revel in the beauty and diversity of this abundance, but I’m also hoping for a real winter this year — one with prolonged bouts of weather cold enough to freeze the ground and kill problem insects, diseases — and maybe even a few Pokeweed plants. One can only handle so much magenta and purple in the landscape after all.
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:
The bud takes longer than I expect to progress, but finally on May 16, I decide it looks larger and take another photo:
The next day, I realize blooming action is initiating:
The flower opens more fully the following day:
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:
Here’s an aerial shot. Note the penny on the lower petal that Wonder Spouse added to provide a sense of scale:
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:
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. 🙂
The vernal equinox occurred during the wee hours this morning. Astronomically speaking, that makes spring officially here. As is true for much of the United States this year, the news is entirely anticlimactic.
My early spring bloomers have not only been blooming for weeks, many of them finished almost as soon as they started, thanks to the record heat and drought that continues to plague my corner of the Piedmont in North Carolina.
Case in point: my lovely Magnolia ‘Butterflies.’ Two days after it began blooming, petal drop started. The above photo was taken three days ago. Now almost all the petals have dropped.
Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ didn’t wait her usual week after Butterflies to commence her floral display. Instead, she peaked the same day the photo above of Butterflies was taken. Here’s a shot of the whole tree. Elizabeth is a knock-out — visually and aromatically — when she is at her peak like this:
Wonder Spouse took all these photos, by the way. You may well want to click on them to enlarge them, so you can fully appreciate their quality. Here’s a close-up of Elizabeth’s flowers taken the same day as the above photo:
The Bloodroots growing on my north-east-facing slope above the creek began blooming about the same time that Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ got started. Here’s one that’s been open for a couple of days:
And here’s what most of them looked like that day:
Not to be outdone by these precocious bloomers, the first flowers of my native Pinxterbloom Azalea were nearly open the same day that the above photos were taken (March 17). That’s three weeks ahead of last year.
For the first time that I can remember, my oak trees are racing the Loblolly Pines to see which will release their pollen first. I think it may well be a tie. I cannot remember that happening before. Not ever in all the 5+ decades I’ve lived in North Carolina.
So, Vernal Equinox — welcome, I guess. The party started well before your arrival this year. And it’s already well on its way to its conclusion. I just hope that by the time the Summer Solstice arrives, my landscape doesn’t look too much like the Sahara Desert.
I fell in love with Carolina bays a few decades back during a coastal ecology class. I’m talking about three tree species known as “Carolina bays,” not the geological/ecological entities where they live, which are also quite fascinating.
Most of the North Carolina inner coastal plain is flat, and before settlers drained it extensively, much of it was swampland covered by thick growths of mostly evergreen shrubs and trees that harbored abundant wildlife (slightly drier areas were covered by vast forests of Longleaf Pine). These thick growths of swampy vegetation were considered a hindrance by those who wanted to farm the land, which is why today you only find patches of this native ecotype, mostly in preserves that harbor bears and recently re-introduced red wolves, along with myriad birds and other creatures.
I think the settlers probably called these areas bays, because of the three species of small, evergreen trees that grew among the hollies and other vegetation characteristic of this ecotype. To the casual observer, they look vaguely alike, because they are all small trees, often shrubby in habit, and their leaves are evergreen and aromatic.
Cooks familiar with bay leaves may know they are leaves from the Bay Laurel (Laurel nobilis), a shrubby tree of the Mediterranean region. These aromatic leaves have been used to flavor food for thousands of years. Settlers of the NC coastal plain saw a similarity between the cooking bay they knew and three evergreen tree species of the swampy thickets, so all were named bays: Loblolly Bay (Gordonia lasianthus), Red Bay (Persea borbonia), and Sweet Bay (Magnolia virginiana).
If you crush leaves of these three trees, they smell sweetly spicy; each species smells slightly different, and all were used by the colonists to flavor food. Of the three species, Sweet Bay’s leave are the sweetest, which may be how it got its name. Although, the potently fragrant white flowers of this native magnolia may have also been responsible for that designation.
The natural range of this mostly evergreen (depends on the coldness of the winter) native magnolia extends to the lower, eastern Piedmont region. Twenty-two years ago when I realized part of my yard was a moist floodplain leading into a swamp, I decided to plant some bays. The Red Bay I planted is struggling to hang on; our recent drought years have been hard on it. The Sweet Bay, however, seems to be thriving. It is tall and skinny at about 25 feet high, and it disappears when all the floodplain trees wear their summer foliage.
Winter is when my Sweet Bay Magnolia shines. After I planted mine, I discovered a group of about four growing deeper in the swamp just off our property. These are clearly naturally occurring trees, which likely explains why the one I planted nearby is so happy. Yes, I laughed when I realized that Nature had beaten me to the punch.
My tree blooms in April, and because it’s so tall, I often forget to look for the flowers. But the seed cones are usually still visible by the time I remember to check on it.
However, in the winter landscape, I notice this tree every time I look out my window because of its leaves. The tops of the leaves are a nice deep green, but the undersides are pale silver. The gentlest of breezes lifts Sweet Bay’s leaves enough to show their metallic undersides. And when the barometric pressure changes, my Sweet Bay turns up all its leaves, sending a silver signal to warn me of an impending weather change.
If you’ve got a moist spot in your Piedmont yard, consider adding a Sweet Bay Magnolia. Horticulturalists have developed a number of cultivars that are more refined than the species. Some even have larger, more conspicuous flowers. All tolerate shade and wet roots, and all will flash their leafy silvery undersides at you when the winds make them dance.
It happens so fast this time of year. One moment the forest is ablaze with vivid leaves that dance in the lightest breeze. The next moment the color moves from branches to forest floor, leaves settling at the bases of parent trees, creating patchworks of color for feet to kick up during crisp autumn walks. But the bright leaf carpet is fleeting, quickly morphing to browns and rusts, as if to match the starkness of bare branches above.
Different tree species move through this cycle at varying rates. Leaves of Ashes and Black Cherries in my yard go from green to brown and abandon their branches in mid-September, seemingly eager to begin their winter rest. Tulip Poplar leaves turn bright yellow next, and begin to drift to the ground (along with thousands of seeds) about the time the Red Maples and Sweet Gum leaves are painting themselves gold, pumpkin orange, and garnet red.
Some trees drop their leaves over the course of several weeks. Some seem to receive a signal (perhaps the change in daylight?) that causes them to shrug off their leaves all at once, leaving carpets of color at their feet. That’s what my Halesia diptera did a few days ago, as you can see in the above photo. Wonder Spouse used the opportunity to create a new fall header for my blog.
The Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) that grow along my creek recently cast off their gold and brown leaves simultaneously, creating quite a colorful, crunchy carpet on my floodplain as you can see here:
I love these trees best in winter, when their magnificent trunks glow in weakened sunshine.
The compound leaves of the young Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) on my hill turn a sickly greenish yellow mostly; their weight causes them to stick close together near the base of the tree like this:
Here’s a closer view of some of the leaves:
Sweet Gum leaves end up blowing everywhere, mixing in with the leaves of other species. Here are a few examples that turned my favorite rich garnet hue:
Finally for today, I want to show you autumn leaves of three of my deciduous Magnolia specimens. First up, the fallen leaves of Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala). This native of moist forests of the Piedmont and Mountains grows along my creek. I rescued it from a similar setting on a friend’s land that was slated for the bulldozer. Although its leaves are not as large as Bigleaf Magnolia (M. macrophylla), you can see how the Umbrella Magnolia leaves dominate the forest floor:
My two cultivars of Cucumber Magnolia not only bloom at different times, they also drop their leaves at different times. Leaves of M. acuminata var. ‘Butterflies’ turn briefly pale yellow, then brown and fall quickly in mid-October, sticking close to the base of the tree, as you can see here:
The older cultivar of this species that I grow – M. acuminata var ‘Elizabeth’ — not only blooms later, but also retains its rich gold-and-brown leaves much longer. As I type this, Elizabeth has not yet released her bright cloak of autumn color, as shown in this close-up of a few branches here:
Always the last to relinquish their hold on autumn are the native oaks. They only began to color up a couple of weeks ago, and only a few of their leaves have fallen. It will be late November, some years even mid-December, before my mighty oak canopy trees stand starkly naked against a wintry sky.
That’s OK by me. It gives me a reason to postpone raking. After all, there’s no reason to do it more than once, right?
Wonder Spouse was wandering the yard with his superior camera this weekend, and I persuaded him to capture one of the open flowers on our large Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). She has been perfuming our front yard for about two weeks now, and judging by the number of unopened buds, she will likely still be showing off when the Summer Solstice arrives in a couple of weeks.
Now that our mornings have turned characteristically humid (and absurdly hot), the cloying sweetness of these flowers smacks you in the face when you head out the front door, where the tree resides. And when the air is really thick — as it has been lately — it still manages to tickle the nose when you head out the back door. I find magnolia perfume overpowering up close, but it’s diluted just enough to make it pleasant as it travels over the roof and down to the back deck.
I told you all the reasons I love this tree (despite it’s potentially invasive nature) long ago here. But it wasn’t blooming when I wrote about this species, so I thought it deserved an entry now while it’s showing off.
I was beneath this tree this morning tending to some hydrangeas when I noticed quite a few small magnolia branches on the ground. I had not realized that those gosh darn periodical cicadas had laid their eggs on these branches too! My poor southern belle looks quite off her game with so many of her end branches broken off by the boring of all those ovipositors.
She’s a big tree, so I’m hopeful that she’ll recover, dignity and beauty intact. She’s got thirteen more years to grow enormous enough that the next round of cicadas won’t inflict so much obvious damage.
At least the cicadas don’t bother the flowers. That’s good news for the pollinators who crowd her open blossoms from dawn to dusk — especially the ever-diligent honeybees, who make my front-yard belle hum happily, as they dine upon her nectar.
Happy almost summer ya’ll.