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Magnolia grandiflora – Musings on the Southern Magnolia

Magnolia grandiflora is a big tree and somewhat out of fashion these days.

If a gardener has a large garden and room and the need for a gigantic evergreen as a backdrop, the southern magnolia is perfection. Such a gardener is rare.

Southern magnolia is often (unwisely) planted in the front yards of people who simply do not have the real estate to accommodate the scale of this huge tree. Southern magnolia can grow close to 100 feet tall, and the spread is impressive as well. With limbs that naturally scrape the ground, there is no room for plant life of any kind within the drip line of the southern magnolia. The usual answer of limbing up the tree 10 feet or so off the ground is no answer.

Magnolia grandiflora - southern magnolia
Magnolia flower and bud.

Probably the prettiest southern magnolia I have seen is growing off the northeast corner of my own home. It was planted there years ago long before I showed up. Probably due to the shade and encroaching buildings it has become a lovely tree over time.

The genus name Magnolia was named after Pierre Magnol, a 17th-century botanist. Species name grandiflora refers to the huge flowers the tree bears in May or June.

southern magnolia leaves
The brown undersides of the leaves are what you want in a southern magnolia.

Memories of old professors and the importance of brown pubescence in southern magnolia

During my undergraduate years in landscape architecture, I tended to spend most lunch breaks drinking beer and eating pizza. I was often not in the best of state by the time I reached plants class. However, I do remember our professor, Robert Hill, a landscape architect of consummate knowledge and grace, informed us that under no circumstances were southern magnolias with the undersides of their leaves green acceptable.

We would dutifully follow along while he marched us around North Campus pointing out magnolias with the desired fuzzy brown undersides. From Professor Hill’s perspective, the brown fuzzy undersides of the leaves were far more attractive. Professor Hill’s view is widely shared throughout gardening circles.

southern magnolia - magnolia grandiflora flower
Southern magnolia flower just opened.

Recommended cultivar
Look to buy cultivars that have dark green leaves and the afore-mentioned brown undersides. Bracken’s Brown Beauty is excellent in both regards. Bracken’s Brown Beauty is cold-hardy to zone 5b. Most cultivars are considered reliably hardy only in zones 7-9.

The southern magnolia is also known as the bull bay magnolia. I have never personally heard it referred to as such. It used to be that it was just called a magnolia. This was before gardeners became introduced to the beauty of the deciduous magnolias.

southern magnolia flower
A southern magnolia flower

More information:
Winter hardiness zones: 7-9. Try Bracken’s Brown Beauty in colder zones to 5b.

Native Distribution:

Genus/speciesMagnolia grandiflora
Common name(s)southern magnolia
Of noteplant southern magnolia where it can spread – needs lots of room to be grown to its potential – dwarf varieties are available for smaller spaces
Fall colorinsignificant
Water requirementsaverage, moist soil conditions
Soil qualityrich, well-drained, average
Suggested use(s)formal, shade gardens
Hardiness zone(s)7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Deer resistantyes
Deciduous or evergreenevergreen
Flower colorcream, white
Bloom periodmid to late spring, summer
Exposurefull sun, afternoon shade, filtered light


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