7 of the most reliable species for Southern landscapes

Story and Photos By Hubert P. Conlon

Magnolias (Magnolia spp.) represent a diverse group of magnificent flowering trees and shrubs. Most bear huge showy blooms in purple, red, pink, yellow, white, and every shade in between. Choose from magnolias that are deciduous, semi-evergreen, and evergreen in any size you prefer. 

Worldwide, magnolias comprise far too many species to list here. This article will include the seven most reliable species for Southern landscapes. Full-service garden centers offer only a limited number of cultivars. Extend your magnolia plantings by shopping at specialty nurseries online. 

Magnolia stellata

What Magnolias Want
Magnolias thrive in moist, humus-rich, well-drained, mildly acidic soils. For optimal flowering, they demand one-half day or more of sunlight. After a two-year establishment period, most magnolias are rated as moderately drought tolerant. Untimely, leaf drop is a key indicator of extremely dry soils. 

Magnolias make excellent lawn trees. Their gray limbs and big fuzzy flower buds stand out in winter landscapes. Their shallow competitive roots are best nourished in a wide, grass-free mulched area. Limit foot traffic over magnolia roots. Pruning is rarely needed other than limbing up lower branches to mow around. 

Balled-and-burlapped (b&b) plants are best planted in late winter and early spring. Container-grown plants may be set any time of year. Magnolias seldom are seldom troubled by pest or disease problems. Deer generally stay away from magnolias.

Deciduous Magnolias 
There are four spring flowering deciduous hybrid magnolias popular in the South. Earliest to bloom are three species with star-shaped flowers: Star magnolia (M. stellata), Kobus magnolia (M. kobus), and Loebner magnolia (M. x loebneri). These are 15-25 feet tall, multi-branched, large shrubs or small trees. All three species bloom in early March, frequently one or two weeks before the official start of spring and are exceptionally cold-hardy and summer heat tolerant (Zones 4-8).

Pink Magnolia stellata

Individual flowers consist of 12-18 thick fleshy sepals and petals (called “tepals”). The colorful white, pink, or purple blooms are often damaged on frosty nights with temperatures in the low 20s. Days later, previously closed flower buds generally open unscathed. Depending on the cultivar, blooms may be fragrant.

Saucer or tulip magnolias (M. x soulangeana) include hundreds of cultivars, many hybridized more than a century ago. Early-flowering selections are prone to frost damage. These deciduous 20-30-foot tall shrubs or small trees are commonly called tulip magnolias, based on the shape of their colorful flowers. Protect tulip magnolias from high winds and road salt spray.

Magnolia soulangeana

Flower colors range from purple, magenta, rose, pink, white, and bicolor. Flowers are fragrant and some measure 10 inches across. Early spring blooms emerge before leaves, and may be injured by spring frosts. Some secondary flowers appear in summer and early fall. 

“Little Girl” hybrid magnolias (M. liliiflora x M. stellata) are a collection of late-spring-flowering shrub magnolias introduced by the U.S. National Arboretum in the mid-1980s. They bloom one to two weeks after tulip magnolias. Four available cultivars are: ‘Ann’ (pinkish red), ‘Betty’ (reddish purple), ‘Jane’ (dark purple), and ‘Susan’ (purplish red). These multi-stemmed large shrubs grow 10-15 feet tall and wide. They often bloom sparsely through the spring and summer. Strap-like tepals (petals plus sepals), 6-9 inch long, are real eye-catchers.

Magnolia x ‘Jane’

Cucumbertree magnolias (M. accuminata) are native 40-60-foot-tall trees that deserve to be planted more (Zones 3-8). The 2½-3 inch greenish yellow flowers appear in late spring and are mostly hidden within the large deciduous leaves that emerge first. Cucumbertree magnolia is one of the parents of the new hybrid yellow magnolias (M. accuminata x brooklynensis x denudata). 

The yellow-flowered magnolias are real game changers, much shorter with very showy blooms. Trees may grow 10-12 feet tall in 10 years. So far, more than 60 varieties have been introduced. Dr. Donna Fare, retired research horticulturist, reports her favorite “true yellow” selections are ‘Butterflies’, ‘Lois’, ‘Yellow Bird’, ‘Yellow Lantern’, ‘Judith Zuk’, ‘Solar Flair’, and ‘Elizabeth’.

Evergreen Magnolias 
Southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) is native to the southern U.S. (Zones 6-9). The species grows 60-80 feet tall, with a pyramidal form when young and a rounded canopy as it ages. This magnificent evergreen tree is cherished for its attractive glossy dark green foliage and showy fragrant flowers. Large 5-6-inch-wide, goblet-shaped pure white flowers bloom sporadically from mid-spring through late summer.

Magnolia grandiflora
Magnolia grandiflora bloom

Four large cultivars are suitable for planting on wide boulevards, medians, parkways, urban parks, industrial sites, and golf courses. Leaf undersides are either green or rusty brown as noted:
• ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ (50 feet x 25 feet), rusty brown back 
• ‘Edith Bogue’ (40- 50 feet x 25 feet), green back
• ‘Claudia Wannamaker’ (50 feet x 30 feet), green back
• ‘DD Blanchard’ (50 feet x 30 feet), brown back

Shorter, compact cultivars are better fitted to home landscapes:
• ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Hasse’  (35-40 feet in height)
• Teddy Bear (‘Southern Charm’) and ‘Kay Parris’ (25-30 feet)

‘Hasse’, Teddy Bear, and ‘Kay Parris’ all exhibit a tree-like habit with space-saving upright branching. ‘Little Gem’ grows more shrub-like. Leaf and flower sizes of compact forms are proportionally smaller than their mighty counterparts.

Magnolia grandiflora ‘Kay Parris’

Sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana) is a small, often multi-stemmed, native tree (Zones 5-9). It grows 20-30 feet tall and 15-20 feet wide. Its glossy light-green leaves are 4-5 inches long with silvery undersides. Foliage is reliably evergreen in Zones 7-9 and semi-evergreen in Zones 5-6.

Magnolia virginiana

Creamy white flower tepals, eight to 10 in number, 3-4 inches wide, appear in May into early June. Blooms emit a lemony fragrance. Secondary flowering may occur in late summer.

‘Green Shadow’ and Moonglow (‘Jim Wilson’) are leading cultivars. Flowers are slightly larger, the foliage is dark green, with superior winter hardiness.

Ornate cone-like seed pods form in late summer on the southern and sweetbay magnolias. In early fall, green cone-like seed capsules burst open to expose the bright orange to red seeds within.

Evergreen magnolias shed much of their 2-3-year-old leaves in early spring, but continue to litter the landscape almost any time. Occasionally, evergreen boughs become weighted down under heavy snow and ice loads and may snap off.

Cut foliage from evergreen magnolias is utilized in decorating such as in holiday wreaths and garlands, and in table and floral arrangements.

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