US National Arboretum


Native Magnolias of Spring

image of Magnolia ashei flower with detailed markings The southeastern United States is the center of the natural range for all of North America’s wild magnolias, and late spring is their time to bloom. Spring is upon us in the Fern Valley Native Plant Collection, so we particularly look forward to the fantastic blossoms of Ashe’s magnolia (Magnolia ashei; see image at right) and pyramid magnolia (Magnolia pyramidata). These two unusual magnolias both have extremely large, beautifully fragrant flowers, making a visit to the Fern Valley coastal plain a sensory delight. But they are just two of this very interesting group of plants.  

There are eight native magnolia species growing throughout the eastern United States; specimens of each can be found in the Fern Valley Native Plant Collection at the National Arboretum. Their natural habitats range from coastal lowland forests to the Appalachian Mountains. Unlike their Asian cousins that bloom in early spring, our native magnolias bloom in late spring and early summer; therefore, losing their flowers to image of Magnolia ashei flower.jpg frost damage is never a real concern with the native eight as it is with the early flowering Asian magnolias. They don’t, however, have the color range of the Asian magnolia. Native magnolia flowers are generally some tone of white: creamy yellow, greenish, or pure white (see image at left). The Ashe’s magnolia flowers, for example, have pink or purple markings inside the flower, but the overall color is still white. Almost all magnolia flowers are heavily perfumed, and a number of species have remarkably large flowers a also.  

These intriguing trees are part of the oldest flowering plant family living today, with relatives that grew alongside the dinosaurs. Their flowers give a hint to their primitive ancestry as they don’t have distinct numbers of petals, stamens, and ovaries. The floral parts are spirally arranged with numerous male stamens around the female carpels. The fruit is cone-like and can be quite colorful when their bright red seeds slowly emerge out of the cone.  

image of Magnolia macrophylla leaves There are eight species of Magnolia native to the United States. The cucumber-tree (Magnolia acuminata) is one of the tallest magnolias and it occurs naturally as far north as Canada; the very rare Ashe’s magnolia (M. ashei) hails from the Florida panhandle; mountain magnolia (M. fraseri) is fairly abundant throught the Appalachian Mountains and the upper piedmont; the southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) is a large tree growing to 100 feet tall and has dark green evergreen leaves. Bigleaf magnolia (M. macrophylla) has tremendous leaves, up to 45 inches long (see image at right), image of Magnolia macrophylla flower and the largest flower of any plant species native
  to the U.S. (see image at left); pyramid magnolia (M. pyramidata) grows naturally in the southeastern coastal plain and sports extremely showy, bright red fruits in August; umbrella-tree (M. tripetala) is often multi-trunked and is unique among our magnolias in having flowers with a bad odor; and finally, swamp magnolia (M. virginiana) is a medium sized tree with a wide range extending from the coastal areas and low woods from New York all the way to Texas.


image of Magnolia and shrubs Late spring and early summer is the time to get out and discover our native magnolias. Many resources can give you even more information about our native magnolias. On the internet you can visit the Natural Resources Conservation Service Plants Database web site, various state university web-sites including Virginia Tech and the University of Florida, as well as using standard references such as Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Better yet, come to the National Arboretum’s Fern Valley to find them all in one garden!  

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Last Updated   May 18, 2007 4:20 PM