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How to Identify Magnolia Trees by Their Leaves

A Magnolia grandiflora in bloom.
seven75/iStock/GettyImages

Approximately 125 species of magnolia trees (‌Magnolia‌ spp.) are native to the Americas, including the U.S., while others are native to Asia.

All types of magnolia trees are prized for their large, highly fragrant flowers and glossy, dark green leaves, which vary in size and have other distinguishing features you can use to identify the tree.

Types of Magnolia Trees

The best-known species of magnolia is probably the iconic and magnificent Southern magnolia (‌Magnolia grandiflora‌), which can grow between 60 and 80 feet tall, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden. The star magnolia (‌Magnolia stellata‌), native to Japan and one of several magnolia species native to Asia, is a smaller tree with maximum heights of up to 20 feet.

The saucer magnolia (‌Magnolia‌ x ‌soulangiana‌) is a popular hybrid version with heights between 20 and 25 feet. Other species of magnolia tree include the bigleaf magnolia (‌Magnolia microphylla‌), sweetbay magnolia (‌Magnolia virginiana‌) and Fraser magnolia (‌Magnolia fraseri‌).

Magnolia Tree Leaf Size

The size of the tree alone is sometimes enough to determine its species. Southern magnolia tree leaves are as oversized as the tree itself, with lengths of up to 10 inches and widths of up to 4 inches.

The bigleaf magnolia, while a smaller tree than the Southern magnolia with heights between 30 and 40 feet, has the largest foliage of any magnolia, with each leaf measuring 1 to 3 feet in length. In fact, the leaves of the bigleaf magnolia are larger than those of any other hardy tree that occurs naturally in North America, notes the Clemson University Cooperative Extension.

The leaves of the Fraser magnolia are also on the large side—about a foot long—and have a distinctive lobe at the base that resembles a fishtail. By comparison, the leaves of the smaller star magnolia tree might be 2 inches long and just an inch wide.

A hand holds a sweetbay magnolia leaf, which has a silvery underside.
Homer Edward Price, CC 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Magnolia Tree Leaf Color

The color of the foliage can also provide clues as to the species of the magnolia tree. While the leaves of most magnolias are dark and shiny on the upper side, resembling leather, the color of the undersides varies.

For example, the undersides of the Southern magnolia may be light green or grayish-brown, explains the Missouri Botanical Garden, while those of the sweetbay magnolia and the bigleaf magnolia are silvery in color.

Magnolia Tree Leaves in Winter

Some magnolia trees are evergreen, while others are deciduous and shed their leaves every year. The Southern magnolia is an evergreen, meaning it keeps its leaves year-round. Meanwhile, the saucer magnolia (‌Magnolia‌ x ‌soulangiana‌), a popular hybrid version, is deciduous.

Whether a magnolia tree sheds its leaves in the fall and winter can help in identifying the species. There is a caveat, however: some species of magnolia, including the star magnolia and the sweetbay magnolia, may be evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous depending on the climate where they are grown.

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