TREE TALK | Magnolias enough to make Scarlett O’Hara green with envy

TREE TALK | Magnolias enough to make Scarlett O’Hara green with envy

TREE TALK | Magnolias enough to make Scarlett O’Hara green with envy

Take a look at out magnificent Magnolia grandifloras, and it’s not difficult to imagine Scarlett O’Hara swanning into Madison Park and leaving in a huff. “Well, fiddly-dee, Ashley, I don’t know how they’ve done it, but those Yankees grow Southern magnolias as pretty as ours!” 

And the truth is we do. 

This broad-leaved evergreen is famous for its abundance of large (8 to 10 inches across), waxy-petaled, ivory blossoms that bust forth in early summer and appear sporadically throughout the season. The fragrance is sweet and lemony — some gardeners say it is lightly reminiscent of the scent of Hawaiian plumeria. As one gardener put it, “It wafts through the summer garden like the breath of angels.” 

Up here, as in the Deep South, where it is native, Magnolia grandiflora can reach 80 feet in height, with a spread of 60 feet. It is not a tree for a small garden, unless, of course, you want just one featured plant with living space beneath. With a dense crop of leathery, dark green leaves, it produces heavy shade below and blocks sunlight if planted on the south, east or west side of a garden. 

Like other magnolias, this majestic tree thrives in our rich, acid loam. Our mild summers and gentle winters give it a long growing season, and it gobbles up our abundance of rainfall. But see that it is in a spot that gets relatively good drainage — you’ll have few, if any, disease and pest problems. 

It’s a tree that you’ll enjoy for a lifetime and will be loved by your heirs. 

Anyone who grows this tree knows there is an added benefit. Pruned branches make for grand winter-foliage bouquets. On top, the glossy leaves are surrealistic dark-green. Turn them over and you’ll see a velvety dark, rust-colored underside. And the seedpods stand tall at the ends of branches like large pinkish-red eggs encircled by leaves. 

Take note that of the many species of magnolia, many are deciduous. But the branches of this giant stay fully covered all year. 

A number of cultivated varieties can be found in nurseries. Magnolia grandiflora ‘Edith Bogue’ is the hardiest, able to withstand temperatures to -24 degrees Fahrenheit. M.g. ‘Little Gem’ is good for city gardens, rarely growing taller than 20 feet with a spread half as wide. M.g. ‘San Marino’ is also delicately scaled. If you cannot find the exact plant readily, ask your nursery to special-order it for you. A favorite of horticulturists around the world, you’ll run into this American treasure from China to Europe and down to Australia. 

November into March is the perfect time to get any tree into the ground. Give these evergreen magnolias full sun, space to grow, a featured spot in the garden, rich soil and plenty of water with good drainage and you’ll make a dramatic and fragrant living investment in the next century.

STEVE LORTON, a Madison Park resident, is former Northwest Bureau chief for Sunset Magazine.