In terms of signature identifiers, southern magnolias are to southern gardens what, say, lilacs or peonies, are to our Yankee friends. What would a traditional southern ornamental planting be without the magnificent Magnolia grandiflora, which is the botanical moniker with the common name southern magnolia.
Southern magnolias have large, evergreen leaves that are enough reward in themselves, but they also bear, or are supposed to bear, those huge chalices of pristine white flowers with an erotic lemony scent.
In some instances, when the common, non-grafted and non-named species is planted, it can be years before any flowers appear. Plus, the seedlings (and a lot of named ones too) grow enormously large with time until they often effectively blot out a fine home that cowers somewhere back of them.
Many relatively new varieties can solve both problems at once. These are dwarf southern magnolias that will grow to, say, 25 feet instead of 75 feet or more. “Dwarf” is a relative term, remember. Most of these will flower at a young age and, in fact, can be bought in flower in a 3-gallon container. Both problems solved.
However, that brings on another problem, albeit not so serious. Just which of the “dwarf” varieties will fill your needs on your 75-foot city lot?
One of the best is ‘Teddy Bear,’ with rounded leaves to about six inches long or more and flowers somewhat smaller than those of large magnolias. Even so, they can be six inches across. Same great aroma. In sun ‘ Teddy Bear’ will fill out densely and form a pyramidal tree to perhaps 20 feet tall. In shade, where it will indeed thrive, it will grow more loosely and flower less.
‘Little Gem’ is about the same size but is not as strictly pyramidal, having a somewhat irregular growth habit. Either of these two, incidentally, are fine espaliered on a wall and kept tightly pruned to it. It is a mistake to try to espalier one of the larger magnolias as they get out of hand quickly.
Then there are several semi-dwarf varieties that grow somewhat taller than the dwarfs but with limited girth.
Among the best is ‘D.D. Blanchard,’ with excellent dark green leaves with brown indumentum on the bottom. Flowers are plentiful enough. These will grow to 40 feet over time, but with a girth of perhaps 20 feet. A nice tall accent. Good examples of ‘D.D. Blanchard’ are growing at Holy Cross Catholic Church just east of the entrance. Those are probably 10 years old from seven gallon containers.
‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ grows to a similar size and also has brown indumentum as the name would indicate. Same excellent flowering.
These and other similar varieties are excellent where there is limited space for width of the tree. This is often the case on narrow lots nowadays.
Southern magnolias, unfortunately, are very often seen planted right in front of an attractive house, which they shortly obscure. Be sure and plant one in front and off to the side of the corner of the house and not too close to it. They are nice in pairs, each off the house corner. In the past they were grown thusly as “bride and groom” trees to commemorate what would hopefully be a happy and enduring marriage. I know of one contemporary example of this treatment that is some 15 years or so old and doing its duty in providing a degree of happiness.
A caveat: By all means, never limb up a southern magnolia. Let the lower branches reach the ground, as per a large shrub. That way, all the old leaves, seed pods etc. that fall will be hidden and mowing up to the trunk will be unnecessary.
From a gardener’s diary: Oct. 6, 2008. Historic drought continues. Less than one-fourth inch of rain in 87 days. Desert conditions. Have lost more than 70 trees and shrubs.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at 642-1162.