Posts Tagged Southern Magnolia

Look fast!

Golden leaves of spicebush

No lingering autumn for us this year, folks. An unfortunate intersection of a late hurricane and a strong arctic cold front is about to blast the eastern United States from Maine to Florida. In the Piedmont region of North Carolina where I live, strong sustained winds will rip autumn color from the trees and whirl it away to parts unknown. Clouds will own the skies until next Wednesday, although not much rain is predicted to fall. And our electricity may blink, sputter, and perhaps even vanish for some time. But compared to what is forecast for the northeastern states, we are fortunate. My prayers are with the folks to my north. They are in for a very rough ride.

Knowing what was coming, I took advantage of the last sunny day to capture a few images of my yard. By the end of next week, it may well be winter bare. The Spicebush above (Lindera benzoin) is glowing on the floodplain beneath a canopy of already-bare ashes. The golden color is impossible to miss from our back deck.

In the front flowerbed, Pineapple Sage plants are busy pushing out as many scarlet blooms as they can before the first frost shuts them down for the season. Lethargic carpenter bees drowse on blooms on cool mornings, weighing down the flowers as they wait for the morning sun’s first kiss.

Pineapple Sage flowers

Also up front, the Southern Magnolia is playing hostess to a wide range of birds and squirrels as crimson fruits dangle enticingly from her many cones. The woodpeckers are especially boisterous, but any day now, I expect migrating flocks of robins to stage a takeover. They always do.

Irresistible magnolia fruits attract many admirers.

Walking along the creek that borders our property, I was delighted to discover the bright red fruits of a Jack-in-the-Pulpit lying among fallen leaves. I picked some of the fruits and spread them in other parts of the yard where I think these lovely wetland plants should thrive.

A flashy fruit ending for a relatively demure wetland species.

Looking up at the brilliant azure sky, I noticed reddening leaves high atop a large Sweet Gum tree, so I took a photo. It was only when I viewed it on the computer that I noticed the branches were weighed down by still-ripening seed balls. When they turn brown and crack open, zillions of little seeds will be released. Sometimes on quiet days, I can hear them hitting dry leaves on the ground, like a gentle rain. Flocks of Cedar Waxwings will appear when the fruits are ripe. They make quite a racket as they dangle from branches devouring seeds.

Another bumper crop of Sweet Gum fruits will be ready very soon.

I’ll be sad to see all this autumn beauty scoured away by relentless storm winds. I really enjoyed the way it lingered last year well into November. But I didn’t enjoy the absurdly warm winter and early spring that failed to produce enough cold to kill problem insects and diseases.

And a bare-branched winter cold sky holds its own kind of beauty. I will welcome the short days and weak sun, knowing the important work that winter does for my garden.

Autumn 2012, we barely knew you. But it was beautiful while it lasted. Farewell.

Fierce winds will carry the last of the butterflies far, far away.





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Turtle Weather

It arrives when Southern Magnolia blossoms perfume heavy, increasingly hot air.

Daylily ‘Siloam Dan Tau’

And after the succession of daylily flowers has progressed from early birds like ‘Happy Returns’ to show-offs like ‘Siloam Dan Tau.’

Zucchini ‘Raven’

We’ve usually been eating summer squash for several weeks, along with the first few celebrated tomatoes.

Tomato ‘Sweet Treats’

Turtle Weather arrived last week — unusually late for the Piedmont region of North Carolina. It’s Turtle Weather when humid air begins to generate random afternoon thunderstorms, fireflies dance nightly in treetops, and the distant “Bob White” calls of quail from nearby fields punctuate sweltering high-noon sunshine.

That’s when I see them: Eastern Box Turtles in the middle of roads — little country roads and even four-laned roads. Hormonal urges to mate make them recklessly trudge into traffic.

Turtle Weather is really reptile weather. When I see the intrepid Eastern Box Turtles lumbering in search of love, I also begin to see Black Rat Snakes everywhere. I often see them flattened on roads; too many ignorant drivers go out of their way to kill snakes.

But I saw a healthy live one yesterday. It wiggled out onto the road just as I approached in my car. I slowed, and it wisely chose to reverse course, returning to the safety of vegetation growing along the shoulder.

Most startling this week, I came face-to-face with a smaller Black Rat Snake (maybe 2 feet long) at my front door. It was hunting mice that lurk around the built-in bench by the entry just as I opened that door. After two or three seconds of eyeball-to-eyeball frozen staring, we both fled in opposite directions.

Turtle Weather usually lasts a few weeks past the Summer Solstice, which this year arrives next Wednesday. After that, summer heat usually bakes the ground so hot that reptiles only emerge at dusk and dawn, when I usually remain indoors due to the voracious hordes of mosquitoes that own the air during those times.

When Turtle Weather arrives, I know I’ll be spending daily hours in the vegetable garden harvesting the fruits of my labor. Today, I harvested the first beans — enough for a celebratory feast tonight.

Fortex Pole Beans with Spitfire Nasturtiums intermingled

These Fortex Pole Beans will be big enough for harvest in a day or two.

Nasturtium ‘Spitfire’ lures hummingbirds and adds visual interest to the pole bean trellis. They smell wonderful too!

The Jade Bush Beans will also be contributing to this evening’s first-harvest bean feast. Here’s the modest row of Jades:

Only the large plant in the foreground had produced harvestable-sized beans, but the others are full of smaller fruits.

Turtle Weather means the wild blackberry thickets will soon be filled with raucous birds feeding on ripened fruits. Cicada thrumming should start up any minute. Weekends are filled with the scents of freshly mown lawns and meat grilling in backyards.

Turtle Weather takes me back to childhood treks through Piedmont woods, neighborhood kickball games on the dead-end street in front of my house, blackberry-picking expeditions from which I returned so covered in red juice and bloody thorn scratches that one could not be distinguished from the other until after a good washing.

Turtle Weather is finite and therefore precious. Reptiles know they must brave busy roads before the time is past. Children know they must play until full dark descends, so as not to waste a single night of no-school-tomorrow freedom. Gardeners know harvests don’t last forever. Fresh fruits must be celebrated, savored, and the excess stored for dark winter feasts.

Turtle Weather is the best Summer brings us. I encourage you to grab it while you can.

Turtle Weather means the onset of Black-eyed Susan Season.

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You can’t start summer without this belle in bloom

Honeybees adore her

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.

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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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