Of the approximately 100 species of magnolias, eight are native to the eastern U.S. Cultivars of the species preferred in trade, however, number in the thousands. Magnolias prefer acidic soil and full sun. Other common magnolia characteristics are attractive, smooth, light gray bark; smooth edged, central veined leaves that may be deciduous or evergreen; and showy, fragrant flowers, for which they are most prized. Flowers are large and solitary with tepals (undifferentiated petals and protective sepals) ranging in number from six to 20. This column describes four magnolia species that are found in Washington Grove, described in the order that they typically bloom. The three photos were taken in Washington Grove last March.
Star Magnolias (Magnolia stellata) are found as often as shrubs as trees. Their early bloom in March makes them more prone to frost damage. As with other magnolias when the temperature falls below 28 degrees, the flowers brown and quickly turn to mush.
The fragrant flowers are composed of 1-½ to 2” inch long strap-like tepals, 12 or more in number that are white to pale pink (Photo #1).
Most of the notable magnolias blooming in Washington Grove beginning in early March are saucer magnolias (Magnolia x soulangeana – a hybrid with two Chinese parents). Blooms are more intense towards the end of the month. The saucer shaped, fragrant flowers have 9 tepals opening 9-12” wide in myriad shades between white to light pink to purple (Photo #2) and (Photo #3). Saucer magnolias may be the most widely planted of all the magnolias because of their reliable, stunning flowers and because they easy to propagate and grow.
Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is a native, less showy tree that begins to bloom in April once the tree has fully leafed out and can continue through the summer. The flowers are creamy-white, 9-12 petaled, lemon-scented and 2-3” wide. In our area, this is a semi-evergreen single or multi-stemmed tree that has the advantages of tolerance to full shade and excess water. Also, it is a preferred host for the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly and is a source of seed food for squirrels and numerous birds.
Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandifolia) is probably the most readily recognized magnolia, growing into a massive tree with messy, large evergreen leaves and heavily scented milk-white flowers, the sort one puts in a bowl of water to perfume a room. It is native to the southeast U.S. from North Carolina to Texas. The 8-12” in diameter flowers begin to open in May and continue sporadically.