Oklahoma County Cooperative Extension Service

Lessons from the Garden: Southern Magnolias: the pros and cons

OSU Extension Center

Ann Larson, Oklahoma County Extension Master Gardener

2500 NE 63rd Street

OKC, OK  73111





Lessons from the Garden:  Southern Magnolias: the pros and cons


I have a love-hate relationship with my Southern Magnolias.


I feel almost treasonous saying that out loud.


A symbol of the South, a showstopper from the street, the state tree of Mississippi (and the state flower of Louisiana,), Magnolia grandiflora is a prolific beauty that stars in many a landscape and has much to love.


There is nothing better than brushing by this aristocratic tree when in bloom and taking in the intense perfume.  The creamy white blossoms, some much larger than my hand, beautify the branches and permeate the air with its sweet-smelling fragrance.  There is nothing quite like it.  I’m often inclined to snap off a few flowers and float them in a saucer in my home, filling the rooms with the memorable smell.  Ahhh. 


But on the other hand, while their bloom time is long (beginning in May and sometimes lasting into late fall), the individual blossoms brown and shrivel and their fragrance vanishes after a day or two.  It is too fast, too fleeting.


And yet, in that brief unfolding then fading, they have helped our pollinators, most notably beetles, and I often find bees hovering in among the petals. 


Then there are the leaves, the green so glossy they look polished; the copper-colored undersides a splendid contrast – beautiful on the tree and in flower arrangements, but an ugly mess when they carpet the ground, their leathery thickness never seeming to break down or decompose. 


And while the leaf litter can be considered satisfactory mulch beneath the tree itself, it can also become a suffocating cover for nearby perennials.  Contrary to most trees whose leaves fall in autumn, magnolias shed their old leaves in May.  But actually magnolia leaves tend to drop 365 days a year.  And the pods that fall in late summer add to the mess, yet the seeds provide food to squirrels and mice, robins and other migratory birds.  Nevertheless, I find myself raking all year long.


It’s the yin and yang; my Zen interrupted. 


This hardy broad-leafed evergreen, when planted in rows, makes magnificent screens or hedges, and it stands out as a magnificent specimen tree as well, especially when left to grow in its natural form with branching all the way to the ground.  But its size – up to 80 feet in height and 50 feet wide, can eventually become a behemoth in the landscape.


“Dwarf” cultivars are now available, but don’t be misled by the word “dwarf” when it comes to magnolias.  One, “Little Gem,” is a dwarf magnolia with all the wonderful characteristics I love (and yes, the same ones I don’t cherish) but it still reaches 25-35 feet in height with a 15 foot spread.  Half the size of the parent, true, but it still requires plenty of room.


While Southern magnolias are promoted as a hurricane/storm resistant tree, those of us in hot, dry climates are cautioned to plant magnolias in areas out of wind’s way to protect its flowers and brittle branches.  Mine had the top knocked out during an ice storm, which created an interesting V-shape for years, but over time it has begun to fill in.


Its shallow roots spread wide and can cause damage to sidewalks and driveways; if relocated during construction, a magnolia will undergo significant damage and likely die. 


Southern magnolias can grow in sun or shade, and although they prefer moist, well-drained acidic soils, they can tolerate fluctuations in soil moisture.  They even adapt to clay soils, and once well established, they are relatively drought tolerant.  They have few pests and generally don’t require pruning.


I guess when all is said and done, when the good is weighed against the bad, there’s really very little not to love about the Southern Magnolias.

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