The Kinds of Magnolia Trees

The "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees" says that there are over 200 different kinds of trees and shrubs in the magnolia family worldwide. Eleven trees from this family exist in the United States, with the flagship species of the magnolias being the southern magnolia, a tree of the Deep South with tremendous ornamental appeal. However, other magnolia trees offer many of the same aspects as the southern magnolia does, producing showy flowers, fruit and foliage.


Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) grows from New York State southward to Florida and westward to states like Arkansas and Texas. Also called swamp magnolia, sweetbay exists in damp ground near wetlands, ponds, rivers and streams. Sweetbay magnolia grows as tall as 90 feet in the southern part of its range, but much shorter, only to about 30 feet, in northern states. The leaves remain on the tree through winter in the South before new ones grow in, but fall off in fall in colder climates. Sweetbay's cream-white flowers, possessing from nine to 12 petals and as wide as 2.5 inches, bloom in late spring to early summer. Cultivars of sweetbay available as ornamentals include Milton, a cold-hardy hybrid and the Henry Hicks, designed to stay evergreen wherever it grows.


The cucumbertree magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) gets its name from its fruit, which bears resemblance to a cucumber before ripening to a dark red and splitting open, revealing the seeds. Cucumbertree has a wide distribution through the Mid-Atlantic States and the western section of the South, says the United States Forest Service website, but it is rarely plentiful within its range. Cucumbertree is easily the hardiest of the magnolias in the United States in terms of withstanding cold temperatures. Cucumbertree's flowers are greenish-white, the leaves are oval and as long as a foot and the gray to brown bark has furrows and ridges. Cucumbertrees will grow as high as 120 feet, but most are in the 50 to 80-foot range. Cucumbertree magnolia grows in full sunshine or in partly shady locations. The hybrids include Butterflies, known for its five-inch-wide yellow flowers and the Elizabeth, which can grow to be 50 feet tall.


Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) features what the Missouri Botanical Garden site describes as the "largest simple leaves" of any tree species native to North American soil. The leaves can be 30 inches long and 10 inches in width, with the tree capable of growing to 40 feet tall. Bigleaf magnolia's flowers are aromatic and sometimes reach a foot across, but are often so high in the tree that you cannot get good looks at them. The tree has a pyramidal form that becomes round with maturity. On average, a bigleaf magnolia tree will not bloom until it is about 12 to 15 years old. When planting this tree as an ornamental, consider if you live where it is normally windy; windy conditions will tear the leaves and make them look ragged. Bigleaf magnolia hybrids include one called Purple Spotted, a tree with large white flowers that have purple blotches in their middles.

Keywords: magnolia trees, cucumbertree magnolia, sweetbay magnolia

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John has written thousands of articles for Demand Studios, Associated Content and The Greyhound Review. A Connecticut native, John has written extensively about sports, fishing, and nature.