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.
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.
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.
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.
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....
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!