Southern magnolia trees are prized plants during the holidays because their glossy, long-lasting leaves can be used to create fresh evergreen wreaths, swags, garlands and centerpieces. In spring, these same trees produce flowers with a fresh lemon scent, followed by colorful seed pods.
The tree, botanically known as Magnolia grandiflora, can be a messy eyesore when planted in the wrong spot, such as a front yard where the leaves drop and collect. But placed carefully in a wooded area or at the corner of a back yard, they are beauties to behold 12 months of the year.
About 80 species of magnolia are native to the eastern U.S. and southeastern Asia, according to The United States National Arboretum. The stately tree is also native to eastern North Carolina.
A common magnolia in North Carolina’s Piedmont is umbrella tree, or M. tripetala, which grows in rich, organic soils in full sun or part shade. It prefers ravines. The tree produces white flowers with a disagreeable odor. Leaves are spread at the branch tips, like the ribs of an umbrella.
Sweetbay magnolia, or M. virginiana, has showy, fragrant flowers, with smaller leaves, lance-shaped, shiny green and silvery underneath. Preferring moist, rich, organic soils, sweet bay tolerates wet, boggy or clay soils. You can find the tree as far north as Long Island, N.Y., and as far south as Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, according to the USDA Forest Service.
All three species start blooming in April and produce fruits by the end of October, says Helen Hamilton, author of “Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain.”
Two popular species for home landscapes are deciduous magnolias – white-flowering star magnolia, native to Japan, and pink-and-white blooming saucer magnolia, native to China – losing their leaves in the winter.
The glorious white flowers of Southern magnolia would not appear without beetles, according to Hamilton.
“Beetles seeking the food rewards of sugars, pollen and plant tissues are attracted to the heat and chemicals produced by the flowers,” she says. “Many species of beetles feed on the fragrant pollen and sugary secretions from the center of the flower, and carry the pollen to other nearby trees. After pollination, a cone-shaped fruit with red seeds decorates the tree over the winter.”
Many families of beetles visit magnolia flowers, including the sap-feeding beetles, tumbling flower beetles, leaf beetles such as the cottonwood leaf beetle and weevils.