Every part of the world has their own collection of plants that are indelibly associated with that region – the sequoias of Northern California or the assorted cacti of the American Southwest, for example. One of the iconic plants of the southeast is Magnolia grandiflora, commonly known as the Southern Magnolia. These tall, stately trees are known for their glossy evergreen leaves, giant flowers (the botanical name translates to “large-flowered magnolia”), and impressive form.
Though somewhat slow growing, Southern magnolias will eventually reach heights of up to 80 feet tall, with spreads of 30 to 50 feet wide. Historically, this made them well suited for use on large homesteads or plantations as either a specimen tree or perhaps as a screening, hedge, or lining a long driveway. More modern landscapes are smaller, so not everyone has room for a tree of that size in their yard, let alone 10 or 20 of them. Even so, Southern Magnolias are still a good fit for larger landscapes and for use in areas like parks, golf courses, and campuses where there is ample room for them to grow.
But what if you want the look of a southern magnolia in your home landscape? There are a few excellent cultivars which provide similar visual appeal, but at a fraction of the size. One is ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty.’ This cultivar will reach 30 to 50 feet in height, and is noted for having smaller leaves than the species (though the leaves are still fairly large, 6 inches long on average), with a rusty brown color on the underside of each leaf. Brown isn’t always a color we welcome in landscapes, but the contrast between the glossy green leaf surface and the rougher brown underneath is striking and very attractive. These leaves are a popular choice for wreaths, centerpieces, and other fall and winter arrangements.
‘Kay Parris’ is another cultivar that has some very exciting attributes. ‘Kay Parris’ has glossy green leaves with an orange-brown, velvet-like underside, which makes them another favorite for indoor decor. The flowers are plentiful and extremely fragrant. This cultivar has great branch structure, holds up well to high winds, and grows to 20 feet tall with a spread of about 10 feet.
If ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ or ‘Kay Parris’ is too big, perhaps ‘Little Gem’ would be a better fit. ‘Little Gem’ is the smallest of all Magnolia grandiflora cultivars, topping out at approximately 20 feet high and 10 feet wide. It’s not just the height, however – everything about this cultivar is smaller. The leaves grow to only about 4 inches long and the flowers are 6 inches wide when open, compared to 8-12 inches for the species.
All of the Southern Magnolia cultivars and the species itself are relatively disease and insect free. The biggest problem they have is that they tend to be quite messy. Even though they are evergreens, they do drop the majority of their older leaves in early spring as the new leaves emerge. With so many large leaves falling to the ground at once, it can be problematic to tidy up underneath them. Because of the size and thickness of the individual leaves, they can’t easily be mowed either. Still, the glory of a nicely shaped Southern Magnolia in full bloom is tough to beat, and something the south can surely be proud to call its own.
If you would like to know more about the Southern Magnolia, please visit the North Carolina Plant Toolbox.