An iconic Southern tree, the Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), is sometimes known as "evergreen magnolia" or "bull bay." It is a large species, with mature trees topping out at 80 feet tall, with a spread of up to 50 feet. Southern magnolia is an American native, found from North Carolina southward and as far west as Texas. Large, white, cup-shaped flowers bloom in May and June, with single fragrant blooms popping up occasionally during the summer. The glossy evergreen leaves are also distinctive and can grow to be 10 inches long.
The trees belong to the Magnoliaceae family, which also contains the tulip tree (Liriodendron) and the fragrant banana shrub (Michelia). Magnolia is one of the oldest flowering plants. Scientists have identified fossilized remains of an ancestor species that date back to the Cretaceous period, which began 145 million years ago. In America, Magnolia grandiflora has been cultivated since at least 1734. In 1787, plant lover Thomas Jefferson sent seeds across the ocean to Madame de Tess, a friend from his days as ambassador to France.
Southern magnolias can be planted in the South in late winter or early spring. The trees prefer a partially shaded situation and protection from damaging winds. The soil should be somewhat acidic and consistently moist. Though transplanted specimens may drop leaves, new growth will appear quickly. This will also happen after hard pruning or storm damage. The trees are large, so provide ample space for young specimens. Because the roots are fairly shallow, it may be difficult to grow plants underneath the trees.
Magnolia wood is cream-colored and has been used for furniture, boxes, cabinetwork (veneer), pallets and doors. The dried leaves are popular in the South as holiday decorations.
There are scores of cultivated varieties of magnolia. Among them are 'Bracken's Brown Beauty,' which features brown undersides on the leaves and a somewhat smaller habit than the species form. 'Edith Bogue' is reputed to be more cold hardy than other grandiflora and can be grown successfully in USDA Zone 6, where winter temperatures may go below freezing. 'Victoria,' selected in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, can also tolerate Zone 6 conditions and has enormous (up to 12 inches wide) flowers. Both 'Victoria' and 'Teddy Bear' are classified as dwarf Magnolia grandiflora, reaching only 20 feet tall, with a spread of 10 feet.
Some varieties of Magnolia grandiflora are slow to flower, taking years before producing blooms. If possible, buy a young, seedling-grown tree that is already in bud.