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The magnolia family (Magnoliaceae) has only two genera: Magnolia and Liriodendron. The Magnolia genus is composed of about 220 species. Various selections, cultivars, and hybrids multiply this number exponentially. The Liriodendron genus has only two species, one of which is native to the United States (L. tulipifera) and one that hails from China (L. chinensis).
Several species of magnolia are popular landscape plants in much of the United States. Although many are relegated to the southeastern United States, some species grow as far north as USDA Zone 4. Several selections are shown below.
Origin: Southeastern United States from North Carolina to the upper half of Florida and across to eastern Texas and Oklahoma; grown in California, Central and South America, and parts of Asia
Cultural preferences: Prefers rich, well drained soil; drought tolerant once established
Evergreen, leathery leaves provide a perfect foil for fragrant white flowers up to 12 inches in diameter that bloom in spring and sporadically thereafter. Following the flowers, reddish-brown conelike structures produce red, kidney-shaped seeds that hang by threads. More than 125 cultivars have been identified. While M. grandiflora is essentially a southern plant, some of its cultivars are hardy to Zone 6.
Magnolia ashei (Ashe magnolia, bigleaf magnolia)
Hardiness: USDA Zones 6-9
Salt tolerance: Unknown
Size: 10-20 ft. tall/12-15 ft. wide
Origin: Western Florida Panhandle eastward to about Leon County
Cultural preferences: well-drained, moist
Who could miss seeing spectacular leaves up to three feet long and creamy white flowers nearly two feet wide? Bright green glossy leaves are surprisingly white on the undersides. Wavy leaf edges with “ear lobes” at the base (cordate) distinguish it from other bigleaf magnolias. The amazing flowers have three petals and three sepals (six tepals) with purple blotches at the base of each petal and less conspicuous ones on the base of each sepal. This relatively small tree blooms at a very young age and is a good candidate for yards that cannot accommodate a very large tree. Never remove an Ashe magnolia from the wild, as it is listed as endangered by the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Magnolia ×soulangiana (saucer magnolia, tulip tree, cup magnolia)
Hardiness: USDA Zones 5-9a
Salt tolerance: Slight to none
Size: 20-30 ft. tall/15-25 ft. wide
Origin: Hybrid (cross between Magnolia denudata and Magnolia liliiflora (China)
Cultural preferences: Full sun or very light shade and moist, fertile, well-drained acid soil
Starting out as a multiple-stemmed large shrub, the saucer magnolia typically grows into a low-branched tree. Growth rate is medium, and a newly planted specimen can be expected to grow from 10 to 15 feet tall in about ten years. At maturity branches spreading almost as wide as the tree is tall form a crown that is pyramidal to rounded in outline. Showy flowers appear in late winter before the leaves, often about the same time as the last freeze, causing no end of frustration and disappointment to those who have eagerly awaited their showy flowers. Cultivars include selections with white, pink, and purple, and even yellow flowers.
Magnolia stellata (star magnolia, Japanese star magnolia)
Hardiness: USDA Zones 4-9
Salt tolerance: Unknown
Size: 15-20 ft. tall/10-15 feet wide
Cultural preferences: Morning sun with filtered shade during the hottest part of the day; evenly moist, acidic, well-drained soil
Grown as a large shrub or small three, the star magnolia is upright and oval in youth becoming more spreading and mounding as it ages. Fuzzy terminal pussy willow-like buds are evident all winter. The buds open in early spring to reveal flowers three to four inches in diameter with 12 to 18 straplike petals followed by oblong leaves two to four inches long and about half as wide. This is another beauty whose early flowers often feel the nip of a late winter freeze. Several cultivars are available.
Magnolia figo (banana shrub)
Hardiness: USDA Zones 7B-10
Salt tolerance: Slight
Size: 10-15 ft. tall/6-15 ft. wide
Cultural preferences: acid, fertile, well drained soil; moderately drought tolerant once established; performs well in sun or light shade
A banana shrub in bloom can be fills the air with its heady banana scent for several yards. The densely branched, slow-growing evergreen shrub teases the gardener all winter long as fuzzy buds line up on the stem. In spring small, creamy yellow, magnolia-like flowers edged with maroon open in succession over several weeks. The fragile flowers shatter easily. Scale insects may be problematic. Limb up the branches if a small tree form is wanted. Cultivars include ‘Stubbs Purple’ and ‘Port Wine’.
Magnolia virginiana var. australis (sweet bay, swamp magnolia)
Hardiness: USDA Zones 7-10
Salt tolerance: low; tolerates saline soils but not salt spray
Size: 50 feet tall in the garden and up to 100 feet tall in the wild
Origin: Southern and eastern coastal United States
Cultural preferences: a wetland plant in nature requiring acid soil, but adaptable to dry, sunny locations in gardens; shade tolerant
Small flowers less than three inches wide bloom in spring. Leaves are pale green above and silvery white beneath. The trees are easy to identify, even driving down the interstate and catching a glance out of the corner of the eye as the white undersides reveal themselves in the slightest breeze. M. virginiana var. virginiana is smaller and hardier, topping out at 10 to 20 feet tall and growing as far north as Zone 5.
Thanks to Wikipedia Public Domain for the image of magnolia seeds and to DG contributor rkwright85 for the image of Magnolia grandiflora 'Moonglow'.
About Marie Harrison
Serving as a board member for Valparaiso Garden Club, the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and the Deep South Region, and National Garden Clubs takes a chunk of my time and attention. Being a Master Flower Show Judge, a Floral Design Instructor, instructor of horticulture for National Garden Clubs, and a University of Florida Master Gardener crowds a bit more into my busy days. In addition to these activities, I contribute regularly to Florida Gardening magazine and other publications. I am author of four gardening books, all published by Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida. Read about them and visit me at www.mariesgardenanddesign.com.