The grande dame of its family, the southern magnolia dominates the landscape. There is simply no overlooking its stately elegance, especially when it is in full bloom. Bearing flowers as wide as your face—worthy of the epithet grandiflora, “big-flowered,” indeed—a southern magnolia is no mere tree. A southern magnolia is an experience.
Let’s start with the blooms. Following a design ancient by evolutionary standards, they are similar in structure to the first flowers that appeared in the Jurassic era millions of years ago, a testament to success. Large simple petals, pearly in color and texture, fold over a bizarre-looking yellow cone-like structure at the center. Yellow stamens fall like matchsticks from the base of each cone—actually compendium of simple pistils—and collect in the folds of the petals. Once the flowers have been fertilized, the petals fall back in a brown and crinkled heap as fleshy red fruits dangle on tiny white threads from the now-green and black cone. Until that happens, though, the scent is heavenly—alternately described as lemon, citronella, or jasmine—as an enticement to its beetle pollinators.
The fruit, seeds and cone in all their bizarre glory. Photo by.
Meanwhile, the rest of the tree is equally impressive. The leaves are stiff and papery, green and waxy above and fuzzy brown velvet beneath. Typically boasting a single trunk, each tree stretches into a classic pyramid, broad at the base and narrowing to a single point at its apex. Given enough time and space to reach mature size, each magnolia tree becomes its own island, its lower branches hovering just above the ground, the evergreen leaves above form a dense canopy under which nothing else can grow. Blocking out the sounds and view of the world outside, each tree becomes a miniature oasis. A grove of mature trees forms a graceful archipelago—truly a sight to behold. Even in winter, the southern magnolia bears the occasional snowfall or ice storm with grace.
With the possible exception of live oaks, no trees are more evocative of the archetypal South than the southern magnolias. Yet they are true natives only to a swathe of the southern Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Known colloquially as “bull bay,” they join their cousin Magnolia virginica, the sweetbay, and the unrelated redbay and loblolly-bay to grace the swamps and pocosins with their presence. Left to their own devices, they would never have made it further into the uplands. Fortunately for gardeners everywhere, the southern magnolia thrives outside of its natural range, even when pushed to its limits. One such specimen can be found in Burlington, in the courtyard of Marsh Life Science building on the University of Vermont campus, where sheltered walls and a south-facing aspect create a microclimate warm enough for this southern tree to survive harsh New England winters.
Moreover, the southern magnolia is versatile in the human-dominated landscape: I have also seen it growing as a street tree in Monterey, California and lining parking lots and new developments in Cary, North Carolina. However, most of the trees used in the modern horticultural trade are dwarf cultivars that will never reach the width and stature the species is capable of. Although my heart is gladdened to see them, I cannot help feeling wistful, as if something important has also been lost.
Climbing those older, giant trees was an essential staple of my childhood. The wide, thick limbs were easy to scramble up with the ease of a squirrel, offering real height and perspective. For a time, I was removed from the cares of the world and fully immersed in the world offered by the trees. Attending college along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the southern magnolias grove tucked away in a sheltered courtyard soothed my soul during times of anxiety and change. The arbiter of student discipline, the Assistant Dean, had an office directly facing those trees, so I never found the courage to climb them. Still, I valued those trees for the reminder that I was not too far, ecologically speaking, from home.
It’s May now, and the southern magnolias are blooming again in the gardens of my hometown in North Carolina. When I breathe in the scent of its blossoms, I am in my childhood again, that long golden summer where anything is possible and no height is unattainable.