The Mesmerizing Southern Magnolia

The Mesmerizing Southern Magnolia

In the Deep South, the southern magnolia is queen. With its glossy evergreen leaves and big, fragrant white blossoms, this native beauty is ubiquitous in southern landscapes-evoking both the melancholy of Faulkner and the melodrama of “Gone With The Wind.”

From Old South to New South, this species has endured.

In fact, geologists believe magnolias are an ancient tree, dating to millions of years ago. More recently, the magnolia genus was named for Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), a physician to Louis XIV and director of a botanical garden at Montpelier. The southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), which is also known as bull bay, big-laurel, or large-flower magnolia, is one of at least 75 species in the genus. The tree occurs naturally along rich, marshy knolls and on the borders of river swamps and ponds.

The “tender” species of the magnolia genus, M. grandiflora thrives in hot, humid climates. So it’s no wonder the southern magnolia is Louisiana’s state flower and both the state tree and state flower of Mississippi. Even so, the species has a wide range, growing from central Florida along the eastern coastal plain to New York, along the Gulf Coast to Texas, and up the southern portion of Illinois (USDA growing zones 7 to 9). Introduced in Europe in the early 18th century, it is now grown all over the world.

Southern magnolias typically grow 60 to 80 feet tall, although the more majestic ones can stretch 90 or 100 feet. The mature trunk diameter is usually more than 3 feet and the crown spread stretches about 30 to 50 feet.

The species has a slow-to-medium growth rate with a pyramidal habit. It’s low branching–usually right down to the ground–and it’s best left that way; the magnolia has a shallow root system and the shade reduces the loss of moisture in the soil. That’s especially important since the tree is happy in full sun.

Magnolia grandiflora is one of only two evergreen magnolias–the sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, ranges from deciduous to semi-evergreen to completely evergreen, depending on the cold zone. The southern magnolia has alternate leaves, 4 to 5 inches wide and 5 to 10 inches long. They are dark glossy green on top with brown or rust-colored fuzz underneath. The leaves feel thick and stiff, almost leathery in texture. Given that tough surface, it’s not surprising that leaf-eating insects seldom damage this tree. In fact, the tree is essentially pest-free.

Although this magnolia is evergreen, it drops its foliage all year round–steadily replacing the old with the new. The constant shedding means that lots of leathery foliage, which seems to take forever to decompose, accumulates under magnolias That’s another reason to leave the tree branches growing close to the ground–to hide the mess. Besides, with all that tree litter, it’s tough for much of anything else to compete under the magnolia’s canopy.

One option is Liriope muscari, known as liriope or lilyturf. A tough, evergreen, grass-like ground cover, liriope seems designed to catch magnolia leaves and hide them from view while they decompose.

The southern magnolia may be cherished for its foliage, but it’s coveted for its flowers.

M. grandiflora bears one of the largest blossoms of any cultivated tree. Creamy white with a sweet lemony fragrance, these showy plate-sized blooms can be 5 to 12 inches in diameter. The blossoms vary in the number of thick tepals, or petals, (six to 12) and last only two to four days. On the first day the blooms are cup-shaped; after that they open more fully to become saucer-shaped. Flowering begins in late May or early June and continues sporadically throughout the summer. The flower buds, which are protected by attractive downy pods, form early and decorate the branches of magnolias over the long winter months.

The fruit is an aggregate of follicles: a pinkish-red cone-like structure, about 5 inches long, that splits open between September and November to expose dark red seeds. As the seeds ripen, they begin to extrude from the fruit casing. But they hang on for a few days before falling to the ground, suspended only by short silky strands. This tree is a show-off even when it’s dropping its seeds.

It’s an attraction to animals, too. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and red-eyed vireos, among other songbirds, feed on the berries, sharing them with squirrels and wild turkeys.

Magnolia bark is dark gray on young trees, becoming almost black and ridged and scaly on older trees. The straight-gained hardwood has a light to dark brown heartwood tinged with yellow or green. The sapwood is yellowish-white.

Magnolia lumber resembles yellow poplar and is used for veneer and venetian-blinds, interior trim and toys, bowls and boxes, pallets and pulp, doors and dowels.

The tree’s buds, fruits, flowers, and branches are all prized for use in floral arrangements throughout the seasons. Walt until late fall to gather them, priming only errant limbs. Then let the leaves dry naturally. Prune carefully to avoid distorting the natural shape of the tree or leaving stubs on the remaining branches.

Magnolias are relatively tolerant of common air pollutants, so they will do well in urban areas. Use them as individual specimens for shade or in groups for screens or borders.

It’s no mystery why southern magnolia is one of the most popular flowering trees in residential yards. Besides being drop-dead gorgeous year-round, this tree can be expected to grace the home landscape for 80 to 120 years.


Southern magnolia tolerates full-sun or part-shade and wet or dry, even salty, soil. But the tree thrives in moist, porous, well-drained, acidic soil.

Container-grown southern magnolias can be planted successfully any time of year. Balled and burlapped trees are usually transplanted from August to October. Don’t be alarmed if the tree sheds an unusually large number of leaves during the first growing season. Transplant shock is common with this tree. And don’t panic if the tree doesn’t form blossoms for several seasons; magnolias can be late bloomers.

The biggest mistake homeowners make is not giving their new magnolia enough room to grow. Allow an open space 30 feet around each tree.

And give new magnolias plenty of water–they need a lot of it. They grow slowly the first year because their roots are struggling to recover from transplant shock, If you allow the trees to dry out during this time, they may die. But once well established, magnolias need supplemental watering only in periods of drought, or if their soil is poor and does not retain moisture. Over-watering can kill mature trees.

Feed young magnolias once a year in the fall. Sprinkle all-purpose slow-acting granular fertilizer on the soil under the tree, 1-112 feet beyond the dripline, and allow rain to soak it in. Don’t let it touch the trunk. A rule of thumb is about 1 cup or 1 pound of fertilizer for every inch of trunk diameter–measuring 4 feet up from the base. Established magnolias don’t need annual feeding.

Mulching is also important to protect fragile magnolia bark from lawnmowers and weed trimmers, while discouraging weeds, conditioning the soil, and retaining moisture.

Spread a 2- to 4-inch thick layer of some organic material–wood chips, shredded bark, or chopped leaves–directly on the soil around the base of the tree, but not so close that you form a turtleneck around the trunk. Spread the circle of mulch at least 2 feet out from the trunk when the tree is young. Widen the coverage as the tree matures. A groundcover, like liriope, creates a living mulch and provides the same protection.

The straight species and many cultivars of southern magnolia grow as single-trunk trees; others, like the cultivar, ‘Little Gem,’ form multiple stems. If pruning is needed to maintain a pyramidal shape, selectively thin side branches and a few lower ones, leaving enough to let the canopy spread all the way to the ground. Prune after flowering, preferably only on young plants, which will tolerate having branches removed. Mature trees don’t heal as well.

When cutting a branch, use clean, sharp hand pruners or loppers to make a smooth cut. Remove limbs close to the trunk, but not so close that you cut into the collar of bark that circles the limb. Those cuts are harder to heal and magnolias are prone to wood diseases that infect through jagged open wounds.

Generally the southern magnolia is a pest-and problem-free landscape tree. Magnolia scale and bacterial leaf spot are sometimes apparent but seldom life-threatening. Small bumps on the leaves and branches are signs of magnolia scale. Applying light horticultural oil to the infected area usually solves the problem. If leaves become spotted and drop prematurely, your tree has some bacterial leaf spot; apply copper-based fungicide early in the season. AF

Jeff Ball appears on NBC’s “Today Show” as a gardening expert and writes articles and books about gardening.


If you have an “old” $20 bill in your pocket, take a good look at the engraving of the White House on the back. To the left of the rear portico stands a magnificent magnolia. President Andrew Jackson planted it in 1828, and it has a very romantic-and tragic-history to tell.

Despite living the rough and tumble life of a military man during his younger years, Andrew Jackson (nicknamed “Old Hickory” for his tough reputation during the War of 1812’s Battle of New Orleans) was known as a person of scrupulous morals and honor where women were concerned. When he fell in love, he fell hard.

Rachel Donelson was one of 11 children horn to Colonel John Donelson (the founder of Nashville, Tennessee) and his wife. A beautiful and lively young woman, Rachel married Lewis Robards, the son of a wealthy Kentucky family and a man with an abusive temper. When Robards caught Rachel in “lively conversation” with a young lawyer who was boarding at the Robards’ mansion, he banished her from the house, despite protests from Rachel, the lawyer, and Robards’ own mother.

Back with her family in Tennessee, the distraught Rachel caught the eye of young Andrew Jackson, who was boarding with her family. When Robards came to take Rachel back, he accused Jackson of stealing her affections. His verbal attacks were so abusive they left both Rachel and her mother in tears. Jackson argued with Robards, who returned in fury to Kentucky.

When Rachel, fearing for her life, decided to flee to Mississippi, Jackson offered to accompany her to safety. Robards accused her of running off with Jackson; he petitioned (and was granted) a right to divorce by the Virginia/Kentucky Congress.

Rachel’s mother was certain General Jackson would be furious to hear his name dragged through the mud. Instead, upon hearing Robards’ slanders (by all accounts there had never even been an appearance of impropriety between Andrew and Rachel), he offered to marry her. Her mother was profoundly grateful, reportedly asking, “You would sacrifice your life to save my child’s good name?” to which he replied, “Ten thousand lives, Madam, if I had them.”

By now, Andrew and Rachel were truly in love and were married in Nachez, Mississippi. (They later discovered Robards had never actually gone through with divorce proceedings. As soon as the discovery was made, the divorce was completed and the couple immediately remarried.)

They settled happily at Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, outside Nashville. While Andrew relished public life, winning seats in the U.S. House and later Senate, Rachel preferred a quieter existence and often stayed in her room with her Bible. But when Jackson ran for President in 1828, their lives went awry.

If you think campaigning can be a nasty business today, you wouldn’t believe what went on back then. The timing of Jackson’s marriage proved to be his Achilles’ heel. Opponents relentlessly portrayed the quiet, devout Rachel as an adulteress at best, more often as a seductress and loose woman. Andrew did his best to shield her from these attacks, but she was deeply stricken.

When news came that he’d won the presidency, his comment was, “I am filled with gratitude. Yet my mind is depressed.” On December 22, during the short weeks between the election and the inauguration, Jackson’s beloved Rachel died of a sudden heart attack. He blamed it on the accusations leveled against her during the campaign.

Jackson never got over Rachel’s death, and he never remarried. He took a descendant of one of Rachel’s favorite magnolias from the garden at the Hermitage and planted it at the White House in 1829 in memory of his beloved.

The tree has since become the favorite of many First Families, including Lady Bird Johnson, who took descendants of it back to her Texas homes. In 1994 a man committed suicide by trying to crash a Cessna into the White House; the plane instead hit the Jackson magnolia. The White House sustained minor damage; the magnolia lost a large limb.

When a tornado ripped through Tennessee in 1998. it uprooted many trees at the Hermitage, including some Jackson himself had planted. It was then that I met Andrew Jackson V and his son, Andrew VI, and we arranged to replant descendants of the White House Magnolia back at the Hermitage. The tree that Rachel so loved had come full circle.

Jeff Meyer directs AMERICAN FORESTS’ Famous & Historic Trees program. To learn more about or order a Jackson Magnolia. or other historic tree: 800/677-0727;


Species: Southern magnolia

(Magnolia grandiflora)

Location: Jones County, Mississippi

Circumference at 4.5 feet: 268 in.

Height: 98 ft.

Crown spread: 90 feet

Total points: 389

Nominator: Jeff Yelverton

The National Register of Big Trees is sponsored by The Davey Tree Expert Company.

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Forests

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group