Sep 23, 2013 10:04AM ● Published by Lisa Drake
By Steve Huddleston, senior horticulturist at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and co-author of Easy Gardens for North Central Texas.
Upon hearing the word “magnolia,” most of us think of the large, evergreen, Southern magnolia with its large, fragrant blossoms, and rightfully we should. However, Southern magnolia is not the only member of the magnolia family that grows in Texas. Let’s take a look at three species of magnificent magnolias that grow in the Lone Star State.
Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
During periodic visits as a boy to the Deep South, I was enchanted with the beauty and grandeur of Southern magnolia trees I saw. There were even some gorgeous specimens around the big, old homes in my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma (USDA hardiness zone 6b). I was especially pleased to see the image of a magnolia blossom gracing the Mississippi license plates. The Southern magnolia is, in fact, the state flower of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Southern magnolia is a large, broad-leafed evergreen tree that can reach a mature height of 60 to 90 feet and assume a width of 30 to 50 feet. It occurs naturally from North Carolina, south to central Florida, and west to east Texas in USDA hardiness zones 7 to 9, although it can grow as far north as zone 6b. It grows best along streams and near swamp margins in moist, fertile soils. The trunk is straight and erect with spreading branches that form a dense, broadly pyramidal crown. The leaves are thick and leathery and about 5 to 10 inches long. The upper surface of the leaf is dark green and glossy whereas the underside is a cinnamon color and velvety. The large, showy, white flowers are 8 to 12 inches in diameter and appear in spring and summer. Their delightful, intoxicating fragrance fills the air. Once the flowers fade and drop, attractive, cone-like fruits appear with bright red seeds that resemble red M&M’s hanging from little threads when fully mature in autumn and that attract birds. The cones make a wonderful addition to Christmas wreaths and garlands. Cultivars of the standard Southern magnolia include Bracken’s Brown Beauty, Edith Bogue (more cold hardy that most), Majestic Beauty and St. Mary.
Since most suburban yards these days don’t have room for a full-sized Southern magnolia, homeowners may select smaller cultivars of Magnolia grandiflora as substitutes. Little Gem is a popular, narrow and upright cultivar that reaches a mature height of only 20 feet with a width of 10 feet. Its leaves and flowers are proportionately smaller, too. This cultivar is ideal as a corner planting for a two-story house, as a screen, single specimen, or even as an espalier on a tall wall. Southern Charm, called the Teddy Bear magnolia, is a compact, upright grower that reaches a height of 16 to 20 feet and a width of 10-12 feet. It doesn’t have as many openings in the branches as Little Gem does and therefore creates a denser screen.
Plant Southern magnolia and its cultivars in full sun to partial shade in well-drained soil that is at least moderately fertile and preferably acidic or neutral in pH. This tree is very sensitive to magnesium deficiency, and for that reason, newly-planted trees should be given a heavy dose of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts) to help ensure sufficient magnesium. By all means, let the lowest branches grow to the ground; magnolias just don’t look right limbed up the way shade trees are. Don’t expect anything to grow beneath magnolias. Leaf litter will accumulate under the trees from the old leaves that drop in the spring, and these leaves seem to take forever to decompose.
Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)
This magnolia hybrid is a deciduous, small tree reaching a height of 20 to 25 feet and a width of 20 to 30 feet. Its leaves are 4 to 7 inches long, 2 to 4 inches wide and light to medium green. Fall color is pale yellow. The flowers are the real attraction of this tree and make quite a statement in the late winter/early spring landscape. The goblet-shaped flowers appear before the leaves emerge and are 4 to 6 inches in diameter and purplish-pink on the outside of the petals and creamy white on the inside with a purple center. Cultivars differ in the color of the outside of the petals; some cultivars feature very intense purple on the outside. Some people mistakenly call this tree a “tulip tree,” perhaps because the flowers somewhat resemble tulips. However, the true tulip tree is another member of the magnolia family, Liriodendron tulipifera, whose leaves have a somewhat tulip-shaped profile. The flowers of saucer magnolia don’t last long and are quite subject to late freezes.
Saucer magnolia grows as far north as USDA hardiness zone 5 and prefers a rich, moist, well-drained soil in sun to part shade. After its spectacular spring bloom, saucer magnolia offers little landscape interest the rest of the growing season until the following spring.
Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata)
Native to Japan, this deciduous magnolia forms a large, multi-stemmed shrub 10 to 20 feet tall and 8 to 15 feet wide and develops a spreading, rounded crown. It grows in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8. It, like the saucer magnolia, blooms before leaves appear in the spring. The white or pink-tinged, star-shaped flowers are 3 to 4 inches in diameter and include 12 to 18 petals per flower; each petal is 1½ to 2 inches long and strap-like. The flowers are very showy in bloom. Later, medium to dark green leaves appear that are 2 to 4 inches long and half as wide. Fall color is a mediocre brownish-yellow. Red seeds form in green pods that split open in the fall.
Plant star magnolia in moist, organically-rich, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Avoid a southern exposure where the buds may be induced to open too early in late winter. Use star magnolia as a specimen in the landscape, as a patio shrub, as part of a mixed border, or as a small, flowering tree/large shrub in small spaces. Cultivars include Centennial (white tinged with pink), Rosea (light pink), Royal Star (white), and Waterlily (pink buds opening white).
The next time you hear the word “magnolia,” three magnificent species and their cultivars should come to mind. Choose any one or all three of these species and feature them in your landscape where you can enjoy the form, color and even fragrance of their beautiful flowers from late winter through early summer.