Is there another plant that symbolizes the southeastern US more than the southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)? No other tree has such large shiny leaves or larger flowers. Fragrant white blooms can be as much as a foot in diameter. No North Carolina landscape is complete without one of these gorgeous trees even if they are a bit messy.
Southern magnolia is basically a lowlands tree that can grow more than 80 feet tall. It is seldom found at elevations above 500 feet. It occurs naturally from coastal North Carolina southward to Florida and westward to eastern Texas. It will grow in much of Virginia and parts of Maryland, West Virginia and Kentucky but it is not native there.
Trees thrive in full sun but will live under the canopy of other trees for several years. Young seedlings often struggle in full sun, so they benefit from some shade for a few years. Usually when other trees die or are cut down the magnolias assert themselves. Most ornamental types have dense brown pubescence on lower leaf surfaces, but many wild types are greenish underneath.
Magnolias require little pruning and offer dense shade. Despite their thick canopy Magnolias aren’t greatly prone to wind injury like some trees are. Wood is close-grained and hard. They also show some resistance to acid rain and other airborne pollutants. Magnolias also thrive on sandy soils and we have plenty in eastern North Carolina.
Another great reason to have them in the landscape is that they are extremely deer resistant. I’ve never heard of deer browsing southern magnolia trees. They don’t even touch the flowers even though they smell sweet.
Those huge white petals are not simply aromatic. They are edible, although they aren’t much of a treat when eaten raw. They make good spice for soups and sauces and are used like bay leaf. Some folks pickle the petals and report them to be quite good. I’ve never tried that. Flowers do make great potpourri which can be used fresh, dried or simmering.
Shiny foliage is utilized by floral designers for greenery. Flowers and fruits are also useful in dried arrangements. Some people refer to fruits as cones, but they are more correctly aggregates of follicles. True cones are found on pines, firs, spruces and other non-flowering trees called gymnosperms. Magnolia seeds are bright reddish orange and are poisonous. Don’t eat them.
Magnolia bark preparations are used medicinally for numerous ailments. It’s even a component of certain weight loss formulations. Magnolia contains anti-inflammatory compounds and also chemicals that reduce stress. They act somewhat as a sedative and this is what likely reduces appetite and promotes weight loss in some people. Magnolia is also used by herbalists to treat insomnia, anxiety and depression. Magnolia flower extracts are used as topical skin care treatments.
When taken internally, magnolia preparations interfere with most sedative medications. It’s also not a good idea to consume alcohol when using magnolia. Check with your health care professional if you take Valium, Ativan, Donnatal or Ambien. Interactions are likely.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.