Gardeners' Dirt: Magnolias are gems of the South
By Beth Ellis - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
Oct. 10, 2013 at 5:10 a.m.
Ah, the magnolia. What tree is more quintessentially Southern? While I don't grow one myself, several of my neighbors do. During blooming season I'll step outside on an early morning and smell that lovely lemony scent, which puts me on the hunt to find the tree it comes from.
And I'm always surprised, because the tree in question may have only a few blossoms, but the delicious fragrance is so strong that it can travel across a yard or two - or even three - before finally reaching my questing nose.
Various species of magnolia are found in both the Old World and the New World. The focus of this article is the southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), an evergreen tree, which is native to the American South.
Big trees, big punch
Given the right conditions, magnolias can grow to 80 feet, with a span of at least half that. They tend to be shrubby with branches growing close to the ground, unless they've been "limbed up" by industrious homeowners. Magnolias are typically pyramidal in shape and sport huge, deep-green leaves that are shiny on top and rusty brown underneath.
The canopies of magnolias tend to be dense, which means not much will grow beneath a healthy tree. In spring, they get a little ragged looking, as old leaves are replaced by new. Dropped leaves decompose slowly, so homeowners can expect some raking chores.
It's a good idea in our hot and dry climate to keep a good layer of mulch around the tree to protect roots and prevent moisture loss - the leaves can be recycled for this purpose after they've been chopped with a mower.
In spring, magnolias produce fragrant, cream-colored blooms as much as a foot across. The greatest bloom concentration occurs in early summer, with sporadic flowering thereafter. Interestingly enough, the blooms do not produce nectar, so they are not attractive to butterflies and other nectaring pollinators. They instead produce copious amounts of pollen, which is spread by pollen-eating bees and flies. The resulting seed clusters are quite showy, resembling pine cones dotted with large red seeds.
Picky about conditions
It's important for homeowners to understand that magnolias have certain requirements that must be met in order to keep the trees healthy. In their native habitat they grow along waterways in deep, moist, well-drained, acidic soils. Failure to provide similar growing conditions will result in stunted and thinning trees.
Homeowners can avert problems by selecting a planting site with deep soils, avoiding soil compaction around tree roots, providing consistent water (especially in summer), adding amendments that reduce soil pH and topping everything off with a good layer of mulch.
Magnolias are also great consumers of micronutrients (particularly zinc and iron), so yearly applications of fertilizer that includes these nutrients will help promote blooms and avoid chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves).
Best types for area
In the past, homeowners wishing to plant magnolias needed large lawns to accommodate the trees at maturity. In recent years, however, dwarf varieties have been developed that allow those of us with smaller sized lots to also grow these beauties. The best one for this area is Little Gem.
With proper growing conditions, Little Gems will reach 20-feet by 12-feet wide in about 20 years. Canopies are rounded, the trees bloom profusely, and best of all - they start producing flowers within two to three years after planting.
Another dwarf variety is Teddy Bear, which grows to 25 feet with a width of 15 feet. Teddy Bear produces fewer flowers and is slower growing than Little Gem, but its advantage is an extremely dense canopy with a distinctly pyramidal shape.
Magnolias for you
If your soil conditions are right, consider adding a southern magnolia to your yard this fall. Deep, well-draining soils, a neutral to acidic soil pH, adequate moisture, plenty of mulch and a yearly dose of fertilizer will soon have this fragrant beauty blooming away - not only to your delight, but also to the delight of nosy neighbors like me.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.