Magnolias are a tree to symbolize the Old South

by Claudi Speed, Master Gardener

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When you envision a tree that symbolizes the Old South, what comes to mind? Do you, like me, immediately picture the stately magnolia with its profusion of creamy white blossoms scenting the air, perhaps with Spanish moss gently draping from its limbs?
You might then be surprised to learn that fossil remains date the magnolia family to as early as 36 million years ago and that it survived the melting of the Ice Age. The trees are natives of Eastern Asia and are named for Pierre Magnolia, a French botanist, when it was first encountered in the Americas.
Magnolias grow well in a wide range of soils and climates and some will even tolerate salt spray. Little maintenance is required. When the lot for my previous home near the ocean was cleared, I found a tree, which I could not quite identify. It had grown tall to escape the underlying growth with limbs only at the top, all facing the south side of the tree. Foliage was sparse from its resistance to salt spray and northeaster winds. After several months of lawn cultivation I was wonderfully surprised one day to find that the tree had responded to this care and white blooms had appeared, so I decided it would be appropriate to name it my "beach magnolia."
The first magnolia to be widely planted, and recommended for North Florida, is the Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, as it will tolerate moist or even the dry sites found in our coastal dunes, full sun to light shade. The tree grows up to 90 feet tall and 30 to 40 feet wide with glossy evergreen leaves. The fragrant flowers bloom in late spring and throughout summer, with red fruit that ripens in fall.
The Sweetbay Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, is also recommended for our area. It is evergreen and ranges from 20 to 30 feet tall. It is regarded as a patio or specimen tree. Sweetbay Magnolia can withstand "wet feet" and adapt readily to average garden conditions, but it does require acidic soil and will not tolerate salt spray.
Some magnolias are harvested for timber and the glossy branches have long been popular for home decorations. The heady fragrance has often been copied by perfume chemists. Magnolias are pollinated by beetles of the Nitidulidae (sap beetle) family.
Ready to plant? Choose your location carefully; be sure to allow for mature height and width. Do not plant too deeply as roots need to be just at or above soil level. Give roots room so they will not crowd your driveway or foundation. The fruit, while a favorite of wildlife, can be a nuisance on a driveway. In just a few years, enjoy the shade, blooms and scents of your own southern nights!


CANDACE BRIDGEWATER/Nassau County Extension Service
Community Volunteer Van Dyke Walker (from left) and Master Gardeners Joanne Roach, Carol Ann Atwood and Ginny Grupe plant a "Little Gem" magnolia in January at the James S. Page Governmental Complex in Yulee. At planting, it was a 15-gallon container.





Claudie Speed

Claudie Speed lives on Amelia Island and is an active Master Gardener volunteer.