Monday, April 30, 2018

Living With Southern Magnolias

A dear friend of ours loves southern magnolias and has tried to grow them in her suburban Chicago yard.  She fell in love with the species many years ago when her father grew one in their yard in Wichita, Kansas.  Plus, it's a challenge to grow them in Chicago - right?!

Despite covering the small tree with burlap to protect it from the harsh winters of northern Illinois, there is no young southern magnolia permanently gracing their yard yet.  As its name suggests, southern magnolia prefers the south lands.

Indeed, southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) aren't a challenge to grow here in the Florida panhandle at all.  Truthfully, it's more of a challenge NOT to grow them here, given how easily they sprout from the numerous seeds produced each year.

We inherited 2 large southern magnolias when we purchased our home 3 years ago - one in the front by the driveway and one in the back by the bedrooms.  Both are within 25 feet of the house.  There are 2 more southern magnolias, much smaller, along the side of the yard, and a 5th next to our neighbor's house, just over the property line.  Each of our neighbors' yards also boasts a large one at the far back, hanging over the shore of the lake.  We've rapidly gained a fair amount of experience gardening with - and under - this species.

This is the first time I've had large southern magnolias in my yard and I'm developing a distinctly bipolar, love/hate relationship with them.  Sorry, Shelley, but sometimes these guys do TOO well to fit in a yard or garden comfortably.

For starters, let me be positive.  Wildlife loves southern magnolias and I constantly see birds foraging among the branches. 

Well....   To actually be accurate, I have to say that I frequently see birds fly into the tree(s) and I occasionally get a glimpse of them as they move through the heavy canopy of large, dark leaves, presumably foraging.  I know my southern magnolias get a LOT of use, but most of the time I'm darned if I can really see what's going on up there.

Those large leaves are where the love/hate part of the southern magnolia equation comes in for me.  The shade cast by southern magnolias is dense.  Here in our yard, even the shade of the individual tree that has been limbed up halfway to heaven casts a deep shadow on the house.  Some days our home feels positively gloomy with the sun blocked so thoroughly by these dark guardians.

While southern magnolias are evergreen, that doesn't mean that the individual leaves remain on the tree longer than leaves on other trees.  It just means that the leaves don't all fall at once.  Indeed, the leaves fall constantly throughout the year in a never-ending rain of big, waxy, plant smothering, brown layers.  Some gardeners think that southern magnolia leaves decompose slowly, but they rot almost as fast as the much smaller oak leaves that also fall in our yard.  The difference is that the individual oak leaves don't cover entire plant crowns when they land, giving the plants below them a chance of finding daylight sometime within the next year.

In the photo above, a 2 year old golden alexander (Zizia aurea) struggles to keep above the gathering magnolia leaves.

I've decided that one of the anti-competition strategies developed by southern magnolias is the ability of those fallen leaves to smother all plants that attempt to grow within their drip line.

Even lawn under trimmed-up magnolia trees can be a challenge.  The leaves in the photo above have accumulated just since the last lawn mowing, maybe 10 days ago.  You can see how the heavy leaves can quickly smother even healthy grass if they are not removed, let alone what they are able to do to more delicate plants like ferns or small perennials.

To add to the joy brought by the continuous shower of large leaves in the garden, those same leaves often curl as they die and drop, cupping in a way that holds water if it happens to rain.  Since we get a LOT of rain here along the Gulf Coast, that's not an infrequent occurrence.  With humidity levels that prefer to linger between 75% and 95%, the tiny water pools in the magnolia leaves don't evaporate very fast and certain mosquito species have adapted to lay their eggs in these tiny personal incubation ponds.  Southern magnolias might well be nicknamed mosquito trees down here.  (Note:  See the P.S.S. at the end of this rambling commentary.)

Recently I've noted that it's not only the large leaves that hold water once they fall from this giant tree - the huge white petals of the grand flowers (M. grandiflora) do as well, after they've finished their job of attracting insects and they have gracefully drifted down to the ground. 

I don't mean to be completely negative.  The giant blossoms look and smell wonderful, after all.

Then there are the snazzy looking seedpods that develop from the large, sumptuous white flowers.
These seedpods are seriously cool:  fuzzy, brown or brownish green, stemmed grenades with an intricate arrangement of little holes that each hold a bright red seed or two if that ovary was fertilized.  I LOVE the seedpods...most of the time.  Unfortunately, these spectacular structures are also quite heavy and surprisingly spiky, given their soft appearance.  We park our cars under the front magnolia and have had the roof dented by a particularly weighty magnolia seedpod that fell on it.  I have nightmares about what it would feel like to have one fall on my head.

Not only are these fist-sized seedpods weighty and prickly, they are also impressively abundant, landing in the flowerbeds, as well as on the lawn, sidewalks, and driveways.  Once on the ground, they defy the most powerful of leaf blowers to move them and they dull any mower blades that dare to bite into them.  Unlike the leaves, magnolia seedpods do take a long time to decompose, so there gets to be quite a buildup of them over time, providing a cobblestone like texture to the soil beneath the parent tree.  Oh, to have grandkids old enough to want to earn a bit of money by gathering them all up to send to the landfill.....

Thinking about the seedpods that bear the magnolia seeds brings me back, full circle, to how well southern magnolias grow around here.  Each of those gorgeous red seeds has the potential to put down roots and become a NEW (giant) southern magnolia - and a surprising number of the seeds make the attempt.  I am constantly pulling up seedlings - or saplings, if I've missed a hidden sprout.  It doesn't take long for a dainty, little seedling to develop into a sturdy, small tree that gives obvious promise of its eventual ability to heave up concrete and dominate the space around it. 

Despite its challenges for the home gardener, southern magnolia is an awesome tree perfectly made for the Gulf Coast.  Even though those huge leaves seem like they'd catch the wind enough to uproot the tree, it is one of the top 3 trees for hurricane resistance.  Southern magnolias grow superbly in a variety of soils, including the deep sand that makes up our local landscape. 

All that said, given my druthers, I'd plant this tree in the back of the yard, along the lake shore, where its leaves could accumulate to their hearts' content or could float away to decompose in downstream waters.

Since I didn't get a choice about siting these trees in my yard, I manage in the best way I can.  For me, that means going out periodically and (literally) picking up, by hand, the leaves that have fallen into the flower beds. 

Here is a trug with the leaves that I picked off the lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrata) just to the right of it....

Combined with the magnolia leaves we rake off the lawn and blow off the driveway and walkways, these waxy packets of organic matter can be chopped up with a combination of lawnmower and leaf blower into pieces that no longer hold water, then dumped back into the beds to decompose and enrich the soil. 

The small pile of chopped leaves above, with 3 whole leaves for contrast, gives a sense of the great leaf mulch that magnolia leaves can provide, with a little effort on the part of the gardener.  And, oh, the resulting soil is so wonderfully rich!

Sometimes, while I'm picking up the leaves, I'm graced with the sight of an anole sunning in a shrub, a brown skink skittering through the litter, a dark-winged damselfly waiting to give chase, or a wolf snail hunting its prey.  I've slowed down, sat down, and started moving at the patient pace of nature.  In the end, that deliberateness is a gift of incalculable value, opening windows into the world around me.

P.S.  I was out front picking up magnolia leaves from in between fern fronds and other plants this afternoon, wondering how silly I looked to the neighbors as I spent my time in this manner.  Then I stopped and asked myself what other people were likely to be doing at that very moment.  Watching TV?  Checking out Facebook?  Recreational shopping?  This close to the Gulf, many folks were likely to be at the beach, lying on the sand.  Nobody would think twice about whether any of those activities were "worthwhile", so why was I worrying about looking silly as I picked up magnolia leaves in the garden?  I was outside (in the shade), enjoying a beautiful day, listening to birds singing, watching for little critters among the plants as I removed and gathered the smothering leaves.  No matter what anyone else thinks, I certainly could have spent my afternoon in a much less enjoyable and productive manner! 

P.S.S.  While I was picking up leaves, I noticed that quite a few of them were "pre-drilled" with drainage holes.....  Thank you, fungi, caterpillars or whatever other natural phenomenon might have created those holes!  Another benefit of letting nature balance itself.


ProfessorRoush said...

Every rose....err Magnolia...has it's thorns, or something like that.

I've been trying to stretch a few Northern Magnolias...or whatever the species; they make nice bushes which occasionally has some bloom...if they're not hit by freezes, as we were this year. Sigh.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Prof, they've grown fairly well in Wichita, although they are far from huge there. I think that's actually stretching their zone pretty well, though, and I suspect most are in locations where they get some protection from the worst of the winter droughts, winds and freezes. On your open location, I would think it would be a lot harder.

Will yours come back from the roots this year, do you think?

ProfessorRoush said...

I have 4 Magnolias at present; Magnolia stellata, 'Ann', 'Jane', and 'Yellow Bird'. The first three are all bushes and they survive well; the Star Magnolia is about 5 foot tall and round, 'Ann' and 'Jane' are both 8 foot magnolia bushes, and Yellow Bird is too young to's the only tree form and stands right now around 6 feet tall but it's only a few years old.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Ah, all of your magnolias are deciduous! It's those pesky, waxy evergreen leaves that are the problem with southern magnolia - and also the reason why they have a problem surviving in the cold, windy, drought of a prairie winter.

I love the deciduous magnolias, especially Magnolia stellata 'Waterlily'. I hope yours weren't too hurt by this year's odd weather.

Jason said...

Very interesting post. I remember being impressed with the massive size of the Southern Magnolias in Memphis, where we visited our son when he worked there years ago. They seem like very ancient trees, as if from an earlier era of life on earth.

Topsie B said...

I have read that the magnolia leaves have chemicals in them that suppress other plants from growing similar to Black Walnut therefore I'm afraid to grind them up and put them into the compost.. do you think this is true or not? Mine are approaching 2 ft deep.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Dear Topsie B,

I'd not heard that magnolia leaves are allelopathic, but in doing a google search, I found out that you are correct. I know that magnolia leaves can also suppress growth simply because they are so large and dense and they do take a relatively long time to decompose.

If you've got the space, my first inclination is to rake out the majority of those leaves, leaving a 3-4" deep layer, and put the rest into a separate compost bin somewhere to see what happens. Shredding the leaves would help them decompose faster, but would also kill any insects sheltering in the leaves. Shredding would reduce the volume of the leaves and allow them to be used as mulch under the existing magnolia.

Two feet deep is definitely too deep for much of anything to come up through. On the other hand, it will suppress any weeds!

We no longer live at this house or even in Florida, so I can't tell you how the area under this tree is doing now, several years later. While we lived there, I grew dwarf yaupon, ferns, and Clethra under it and they were growing well, if not spectacularly. I did not even attempt to grow grass there, as the shade was too dense - and root competition was definitely "a thing". Magnolias are greedy feeders.

Best of luck.