Sunday, March 18, 2012

Apple #575: Magnolias

The magnolia trees in my neighborhood are blooming. I know they're early bloomers each year, sometimes so early the snow is falling on the blossoms. But since we've been having summer-like weather in early March, I wondered if the magnolias are blooming any earlier than usual.

Magnolias in bloom
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Well, of course the answer to that depends on what kind of magnolia you're talking about.
  • There are about 80 different species of magnolia, many of which have several cultivars (varieties) within each species. The Southern Magnolia, for example, has over 100 different kinds of cultivars.
  • Not even discussing the variations among cultivars, there is all sorts of variation among the species. Those variations can affect a lot of things, including when the flowers bloom.
  • Some species are deciduous (the Saucer Magnolia is one of these), some are semi-evergreen (the Jane Magnolia, for example), and some are evergreen year-round (Southern, or Magnolia grandiflora).

The Jane Magnolia is semi-evergreen, and it has tulip-shaped flowers which are pinkish-purple on the outside and bright white at the center.
(Photo from You can order a 3-4 ft. Jane magnolia from here for $69.)

The Southern Magnolia can grow to be 60 to 90 feet tall. Its flowers are entirely white.
(Photo from Missouri Botanical Garden)

  • The Sweetbay Magnolia is a favorite among gardeners in South Carolina. But the same species may be deciduous, semi-evergreen, or evegreen depending on where in South Carolina it is grown.

Sweetbay Magnolia flowers are a creamy white and the petals tend to do this rounded, scoop-like thing. They also have a light, lemony fragrance.
(Photo by Rodger Hamner, from University of Florida IFAS Extension)

  • I'm going to guess that the magnolias in my neighborhood are Saucer Magnolias. Here's why:
  • Saucer Magnolias are deciduous (check).
  • They can grow to about 20 to 30 feet high (check. It was difficult to get close-ups of the blossoms because nearly all of them hung at heights taller than I am.).
  • The flowers are large and saucer-shaped (check).
  • The petals are white with pink, purple, or lilac on the outside (well, check, I think.).
  • One site has a drawing of a Saucer Magnolia tree and its flower, and the drawing shows a flower whose petals on the interior are nearly all white with a blush of pink, while the exterior of the petal is pinkish-purple (definitely check).

Close-up of what I think is a Saucer Magnolia. Looking down on the blossom from above, you can just barely make out a tinge of pink in the otherwise white petals. So you might be tempted to say these flowers are white.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

But what fascinates me is that from underneath, these very same flowers appear to be mostly pink. The pink color seems to be confined to the outside, undersides of the petals. It's funny that more of the pink doesn't appear in the flowers when looking down on them from above.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • So, assuming that these are Saucer Magnolias, when do Saucer Magnolias bloom? Once again, the answer depends. This time, it seems to depend on where the tree is growing:
  • In New York's Central Park, they bloom "as early as late March."
  • In South Carolina, they bloom in March or April.
  • In Houston, they bloom in late February or early March.
  • Along the coast, they may open as early as February.
  • One site generalizes it best: as early as late winter, or as late as mid-spring.
  • So I'm heartened to learn that while the weather may be wackily out of season, the magnolias, at least, seem to be right on schedule.

Whenever the Magnolias bloom, they sure are a welcome sight after winter.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Magnolias in General
  • Despite all the variations among magnolia species, there are some things you can say about the lot of them.
  • Magnolias are relatively easy to care for. Most species are not bothered by bugs or other pests.
  • That said, most magnolias are pollinated--not by bees--by beetles. The beetles don't bug the trees, they're just there to help out.
  • Magnolias generally don't like to be transplanted once they've got a root system going.
  • This is because, while a magnolia's roots don't run deep, they are long and ropey, so it's hard to make sure you've got them all bundled together when you're moving the tree.
  • If you really must move a magnolia, dig as wide a rootbed as possible. It's more important to make it large in circumference than it is to dig deep, since most of the roots live close to the surface. Also, if you can, snip a few roots a year before you're going to move the tree. This will encourage the roots to branch, making it more likely to withstand being moved the following year.
  • For the same reason, it's a good idea not to plant other flowers or shrubs around the base of the magnolia. Those other plants will interfere with your magnolia's roots.
  • Most people call Magnolias trees, but apparently it is more accurate to say they are shrubs.
  • The primary difference between a tree and a shrub is that trees usually have one or maybe two main trunks, while shrubs have lots of stems. Shrubs are also usually shorter than trees, but what constitutes "shorter" versus "taller" seems to vary from one shrub/tree to another.

This magnolia plainly has lots of main stems, so even though it is fairly tall, it should probably be called a shrub.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • That said, while "shrub" may be technically correct, in person, I'd probably call a 90-foot Southern Magnolia a "tree." I think in that case, its height would trump its multi-stemmed-ness.
  • In the history of plants, magnolias are thought to be among the earliest, or most primitive, of all flowering plants. Some of the oldest fossils of flowers look very similar to magnolia blossoms.

Did the earliest flowers look something like this?
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

United States National Arboretum, Magnolia Questions and Answers
Southern Living, Magnolia: Essential Southern Plant
John Eustice, University of Minnesota Extension, Magnolias for Minnesota
Debbie Shaughnessy, Clemson Cooperative Extension, Magnolia
Backyard Nature, Magnolia Blossoms
Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute, Saucer Magnolia
Arbor Day Foundation, Magnolia, Saucer, Magnolia x soulangeana
Central Park Conservancy, Saucer Magnolia
Steve Nix,, Forestry, How to Manage and Identify Saucer Magnolia
Greg Shelley, Saucer Magnolia churns out the blooms in early March, Houston, March 3, 2010

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!