The greatest icon of the South may be Magnolia grandiflora, or the Southern Magnolia. The sight of a grand old specimen dotted with fragrant blooms is enough to transport one to a time of Southern belles and stately plantations. This tree in its native form is not for small gardens, as it can grow up to 90 feet tall and 40 feet wide. There are many cultivars, and some may be more suitable to smaller spaces. 'Little Gem' grows only to about 20 feet tall and 14 feet wide and is known for its prolific blooming.
Southern Magnolia's magnificent white flowers have a waxy texture and citronella scent. The flowers, which emerge in late spring to early summer, can be up to 12 inches across when fully open.
The Southern magnolia grows best in full sun and well-draining, slightly acid soil, but it will adapt to a variety of conditions. Add plenty of organic matter to the soil when planting and keep mulch around the tree when it is young. Site it carefully, as this tree produces dense shade and its shallow roots can cause problems with nearby pavement. Don't plan on planting anything under it! It is an evergreen tree, but it loses old leaves throughout the year. If it is planted in the middle of a lawn, clean-up can become a burden.
So where is the best place for a tree like this? My own Magnolia grandiflora is in the perfect location. It is in a natural area on the other side of our drive. It is not so close to the asphalt to cause problems, and it is far enough away from the house to keep from overwhelming it. However, it is fully visible from our front windows, so we get to enjoy it from inside as well as when we are outdoors. I am fortunate to have room for it to grow and prosper.
Magnolia grandiflora has a single trunk and a pyramidal shape. The branches are close and easy for a child to climb. My heart almost stopped one day not long after we moved here when I looked outside and saw one of my sons perched about twenty feet up, happily surveying the world. I also had to occasionally shoo other children in the neighborhood who were tempted to climb.
Every year at Christmas time I cut magnolia leaves, as well as cedar and other greens from our garden, to fill the large stone planter in front of our house. I just stick them down in the soil and keep them watered through the holiday season. I add sprigs of red berries and thread tiny white lights throughout the planter to complete the look. I also use magnolia leaves in making a wreath to hang on my front door. Spraying the undersides of the leaves with hairspray helps them to hold moisture and to preserve their freshness longer.
I am not surprised that Magnolia grandiflora is a symbol for nobility and dignity, as well as the love of nature, and I am so happy to have a mature specimen in my garden.