Wilsonii Magnolia Trees and Other Magnolias for your Garden

Magnolia Buds in Winter

Winter Magnolia Buds are a Promise of the Arrival of Spring
Winter Magnolia Buds are a Promise of the Arrival of Spring | Source

Magnolias are Not Just for the South

Magnolia trees are considered an ancient or primitive tree, meaning they haven't changed much since the beginning of time. They evolved to grow in tropical and temperate areas and this explains their wide range including Northeastern and Southeastern United States, the Himalayas, Southeast and East Asia and tropical South America. They are beautiful, hardy, ancient and endlessly fascinating. I feel that if you can acquire this tree for your garden, then by all means do so. Available in all size ranges from the magnificently resplendent Southern Magnolia to the lovely, delicate Magnolia stellata, flowering trees offer visual interest in all seasons. With so many colors and bloom forms to choose from, there is no such thing as redundancy in the world of magnolias.

As I look out my front door, my neighbor's magnolia is bare except for the most beautiful furry large grey green buds (about 1.5 inches long) gracefully covering the whole tree. It reminds me that trees keep their promise to return. Along with the magnolia's arrival, the cherry blossoms, redbuds and flowering take their bows also.

Most of these trees have an open habit, meaning that the top of the crown (top of the tree) opens up like a tea cup. Branches arch, taper and reach out gracefully, sometimes turning at odd angles. Sometimes they drop down and then climb back up again, intersecting at odd angles. As my eyes scan the patterns of these branches, I am reminded of the rhythms of a roller coaster. The bark is basically smooth and grey and the leader branches can be about four inches around or more, depending on the age and type of the tree. Some magnolias take a long time to bloom, upwards of 30 years, others, such as Magnolia delavayi if planted from seed, take about 3 to 5 years to flower. Your safest bet is just to buy a magnolia in flower at a reputable nursery. Call your local county extension center to see if they have can recommend a reliable nursery.

Take note of the fruits of these trees. The fruits are a modified cone shape with many chambers. The outer casement is reddish or burgundy and elongated, wavy and chambered. Many small round fruits can be found inside and the fruits provide a fall feast many birds in the area.

Magnolias can range from about 10 feet tall to 100' tall with a spread of the crown that ranges from slight to about 55' across. There are many types of Magnolias for the garden designer to choose from. Magnolias can grow quite well in zones 5-10. Most of them need sun or partial shade to grow vigorously with moist neutral or acidic soil. A generally very hardy tree, with few problems and many benefits can, unfortunately, have it's blooms obliterated by a late frost. Most, if not all are grown for their fragrance and blooms. Some are cultivated for their medicinal properties.


Magnolia Stellata
Magnolia Stellata | Source

Magnolia Varieties

There are about 80 Magnolia varieties along the eastern United States and about 125 worldwide. Some magnolia varieties include large evergreen trees and deciduous trees and shrubs. Some are wetland types, many are forest understory types and others can be found in parts of Texas.

Sweetbay Magnolia can be found as far north as Massachussetts, west to Texas and all the way down to Florida. It is a tree that is as lovely as it's name. Creamy yellow double flowers highlight this tree along with a sweet fragrance. Quite popular, they can be found all over the U.S. Magnolias have fairly smooth bark in grey tones which sometimes becomes rougher with age, in much the same way we age. As we get older, we wrinkle, as a Magnolia gets older, it becomes a little more angular and thicker. The limbs reach out and up from the graceful trunk. Out of all the magnolias, stellata is my favorite. The literal translation for stellata is star and they do look like bright delicate stars. Another great cultivar for the smaller garden is m. galaxy' which is 30 to 40 feet high at maturity and tapers toward the top. The flowers are upright and dramatic with a deep reddish purple color and long bloom time. This tree keeps it's trim slightly tall shape for years. Big Leaf Magnolia in particular would work well as an understory tree. It reaches about 40', it is a medium size magnolia, so it's not overwhelmingly large. Although the flowers of this tree are wonderful, the leaves are memorable with a length of up to 30 inches! The sweet smelling vanilla colored flowers are also oversized at about 10 to 12" across and cup shaped. This tree occurs naturally from Georgia to North Carolina, and, some have actually been found in Ohio. If you decide to grown this lovely tree north of the Carolinas, make sure it gets windy weather protection, because strong winds will shred those big fun leaves.

Southern Magnolia fruit, a many chambered wonder!  The usually shiny red outer seed casement has turned brownish grey in winter.
Southern Magnolia fruit, a many chambered wonder! The usually shiny red outer seed casement has turned brownish grey in winter. | Source

Care of Magnolias

If you are lucky enough to have acquired a magnolia tree, find out if it is deciduous (drops it's leaves in the fall) or if it is evergreen. It is important to know this because planting times between the two types vary. Plant evergreen magnolias in early spring. The deciduous varieties can be planted in autumn or early spring. Northern magnolias are best planted in spring to avoid harsh frosts. Southern magnolias can be planted throughout the fall. When planting is completed, don't forget to mulch. This keeps temperatures moderate (not too cold or warm). Make sure you keep mulch away from tree trunk. The trunk doesn't need protection, the roots do. Keep mulch about two inches away from trunk. It is a tree after all, it has evolved over millions of years without much help from the human race. Let's keep it simple and enjoy the blooms.

Bloom Types and Interesting Facts

Bloom types include cup, cup and saucer, star, saucer, and goblet. Colors range from burgundies, reds and pinks to whites and yellows. Now, with these forms and colors, are you surprised that this is one of the most elegant trees around? One great fact about magnolias is as they get more mature in years, they become more floriferous. A few other interesting things to note about Magnolias are:

  • The ground up bark (red when ground up) is used in Chinese medicine to help digestion related problems.
  • Magnolias are not pollinated by bees or butterflies, but by beetles.
  • One of the most unchanged trees on earth, considered a "primitive".
  • Magnolia wilsonii is on the endangered list for plants. Unfortunately, it has been over harvested, very few if any at all exists in their natural habitat, although they have been spared through cultivation. To see it is to truly appreciate it, wilsonii is a gorgeous tree!

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