One of the South’s most charming plants is the beautiful southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora. You simply can’t travel south from Kentucky and not encounter massive southern magnolias at all the popular vacation destinations. It is almost as popular as the pecan tree throughout southern Georgia.
While the pecan trees were left to the fields for production and harvest, the southern magnolia—also called the evergreen magnolia—was typically found growing along driveways and near houses. The large, thick, and glossy evergreen leaves cast heavy, cool shade below, making it a perfect tree to rest under on a hot summer day.
Large glossy, fuzzy leaves
Leaves of the southern magnolia grow an impressive 5 to 10 inches long throughout the South, but through most of Kentucky they are slightly smaller, averaging 6 to 7 inches in length. They are dark, glossy green on the top of the leaf, and either green or brown and very fuzzy underneath.
The leaves, while quite beautiful on the plant, can be a real nuisance when they fall to the ground. The older leaves typically fall after new growth has occurred, so throughout the summer months an older year’s growth is shed. These heavy, dense leaves create quite a mess to clean up. Raking or blowing them out of your garden and turf areas is a must.
My first garden after moving back to Kentucky had a large southern magnolia growing in it. It was very familiar and comforting having moved back here from Georgia. It is still growing and doing well. Our first spring here, we planted all kinds of shade-loving perennials beneath it, making a beautiful garden space. But from May into August I picked up the falling magnolia leaves every day. I would find myself complaining in one breath and then in the next admiring the beauty and texture of the leaves I held in my hand. They were so large I could arrange them in neat stacks and then come back with my bucket to collect them. Our yard was very small and our compost area even smaller, and I hate to admit it but I had to throw lots of leaves into the garbage that summer because there were just too many.
The southern magnolia grows somewhat smaller in Kentucky than it does in the South. You can find them typically maturing at 30 to 35 feet in height and 20 or so feet wide. Many are planted with the idea of cutting the foliage for using as decoration indoors.
The flowers of the southern magnolia are as famous as the foliage. Large 8- to 12-inch diameter, creamy white fragrant flowers can be found throughout May and June and then sporadically until fall. The more mature plants produce the most flowers, making a mature tree a stunning sight anytime throughout the summer.
Traditionally, the southern magnolia flower is displayed with foliage attached. This is why you will see so many southern magnolias without any branches you can reach from the ground, because the lower growth has been harvested over the years due to the love affair with the flowers. Growing natively the southern magnolia is branched much closer to the ground, making a very elegant and full display in the garden.
Full sun to part shade is preferred for optimal growth. I have seen small plants growing in fairly dense shade, but the growth was sparse and flowering rare. The southern magnolia transplants relatively easily when young and prefers a soil that is moist. If you plan to cut and decorate with your foliage, you will want to plant yours in a protected site. Extreme heat and wind can quickly damage the large leaves, resulting in tattered and torn leaves.
The southern magnolia, as its name implies, is a southern species. It can be found growing from Kentucky on south. Occasionally you may see it in southern Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, but they have reported severe damage when winter temperatures dropped to -20 degrees.
Like many popular landscape plants, there are quite a few cultivated varieties to choose from. I counted more than 80 that are considered common in one of my reference books. The best cultivars for the Kentucky garden include ‘Edith Bogue’ with a smaller narrower leaf that is extremely cold-hardy, and ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ with its distinctly rusty underside to its leaves and densely growing foliage, which is my favorite and resides in my garden. ‘Little Gem’ has much smaller leaves, only 3 to 4 inches long that are very glossy. It is a wonderful specimen, and makes a great screen or hedge as it grows only 20 feet tall and less than 10 feet wide.
I am always amazed to look out my window on a cold winter day to see the glossy green magnolia foliage as beautiful as ever. It provides important wintertime balance to my garden as so many of the plants lie dormant until spring.