When I see southern magnolias in bloom, I think of and how the manor house at Tara would look with a pair of gargantuan specimens flanking either side of it. Thankfully, you don’t have to own a mansion to grow southern magnolias.
Granted, a southern magnolia will attain a mature height of 60 to 80 ft. with a spread of 30 to 50 ft. However, with more than 100 cultivars of southern magnolia, you can choose from a wide variety of habits, sizes, and leaf shapes. If you prefer to have flowers sooner than later, choose a cultivar rather than a seed-propagated southern magnolia–not one that
The flowers of the remontant ‘Little Gem’ magnolia appear from early May to early November.
you’ve rescued from the side of the road. It takes many years for flowering to occur on seed-grown southern magnolias—sometimes 12 to 15 years, which is why you should select vegetatively propagated clones rather than sexually-derived ones.
Here are a few of my favorites. In 1985 nurseryman Ray Bracken from Piedmont, SC began the parade of introduced cultivars with ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’. This compact, dense magnolia grows up to 30 ft. high and possesses dark, lustrous leaves with rusty brown lower leaf surfaces. The fragrant flowers are 5 to 6 inches in diameter.
‘Claudia Wannamaker’ is considered the queen of magnolias. It’s more vigorous than ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ with a broad pyramidal form and grows 40 to 50 ft. high and 30 ft. wide. This cultivar was introduced by Johnny Brailsford of Orangeburg, SC and named after his cousin and friend, Mrs. Claudia Wannamaker, who purchased the parent tree from a mail order nursery in 1945. This cultivar has dark green leaves with rusty brown undersides. The 8- to 12-inch wide flowers occur at an early age.
‘D.D. Blanchard’ is another tall, pyramidal southern magnolia that grows 50 feet tall and 25 to 30 feet wide, The shiny green leaves have light rusty-orange undersides. It bears 6- to 8-inch diameter, fragrant white flowers.
For narrow spaces, choose ‘Hasse’, a southern magnolia that blooms modestly but has a tight columnar habit. The parent tree is 45 to 50 ft. high and 15 to 18 ft. wide.
‘Southern Charm’ (Teddy Bear™ PP #13049), introduced by plantsman Bob Head in Seneca, SC, is the most huggable of the bunch. Although it’s a shy bloomer, the cupped leaves with felty brown undersides look and feel like a teddy bear’s ears. ‘Southern Charm’ has a dense, tight pyramidal form. The original plant is 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide.
For repeat-flowering, consider ‘Little Gem’. This selection from Warren Steed in Candor, NC grows 20 to 35 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It blooms at an early age and while the flowers are small—4 inches in diameter—they occur from May to October and into early November. Use ‘Little Gem’ as a screen or sheared hedge. Because this cultivar becomes gangly with age, prune the branches periodically to keep it looking full and dense.
Another repeat or remontant bloomer is ‘Kay Parris’, introduced by my friend Kevin Parris, a renowned magnolia hybridizer in Spartanburg, SC. ‘Kay Parris’ has shiny leaves with wavy margins and coppery velvet undersides. The 7-inch diameter flowers occur at an early age. Expect a height of 25 to 30 feet and a width of 10 to 15 feet.
Southern magnolias are versatile, heat- and drought-tolerant southern aristocrats that can be grown in full sun to partial shade. Use them in groups, hedges, screens, and as stand-alone accent plants.
I admit, while imbibing the intoxicating fragrance of the flowers or caressing the fuzzy undersides of the leaves of the southern magnolia cultivars in the South Carolina Botanical Garden or on the Clemson University campus, I sometimes do a Scarlett O’Hara and exclaim, “Great balls of fire!” Fortunately, no one’s around to see or hear me.
Bob Polomski © 2016