Magnolias are among the oldest flowering plants on Earth. The family--Magnoliaceae--and the genus Magnolia were named by Linneaeus in 1753. There are about 120 magnolia species, all in the Northern Hemisphere. About a fifth of them are hardy in cold winter areas. Other family members include Liriodendron (catalpa or tulip poplar trees) and the tropical Michelia tree. Magnolias have long been used in landscapes as decorative ornamental specimens.
Southern or bull bay magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is also sometimes known as "loblolly magnolia" because "loblolly" describes any plant that grows in damp places. The umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) gets its name from the fact that its 10- to 20-inch-long leaves cluster near the end of the twig tips, giving an open umbrella effect. Crosses between two magnolia species--cucumbertree magnolia (Magnolia accuminata) and the Chinese Yulan magnolia (Magnolia denudata) have resulted in many cultivated varieties with yellow flowers, a color not seen in species magnolias.
Magnolias flowers--from the enormous blossoms of the Southern magnolia to the star-shaped blooms of Magnolia stellata--are renowned for their sweet scents. Though the Southern variety produces a large flush of huge flowers in June, it also produces additional flowers throughout the summer. Most magnolia blossoms are edible. They are pollinated most frequently by beetles.
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), introduced in England in 1688, was the first American species exported to the Old World. The genus was named in the 18th century by the father of taxonomy, Linnaeus, in honor of Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), director of the botanic garden at Montpellier, France. American colonial-era naturalist Mark Catesby included the magnolia in his "Natural History," published in installments between 1731 and 1743. Catesby's illustrator, Georg Dionysius Ehret, painted a picture of the Southern magnolia that is still reprinted today.
Little-Known Magnolia Facts
Sweetbay magnolia is also known as swamp laurel, swamp magnolia and beaver magnolia. Beavers are apparently fond of the bark and roots of the species, and colonial beaver traps were sometimes baited with those parts of the tree. The bark on the twigs of many magnolia species is lemon-scented. Chinese healers traditionally used the bark of native Chinese magnolias for medicinal purposes.
Some magnolia species naturally grow into tree form, others are multistemmed and shrubby. The 'Galaxy' hybrid developed by the National Arboretum is more upright in form than other species and varieties. Breeders have also developed dwarf forms of some species, like Magnolia grandiflora 'Teddy Bear' and M. grandiflora 'Victoria'.