Diggin' In: Southern magnolias can be 12-month beauties

December 15, 2014

During the holidays, southern magnolia trees are prized plants 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.

Magnolias are ancient species, dating back to the Cretaceous Period, 95 million years ago, when flowering plants first appeared on Earth, according to Helen Hamilton of Williamsburg, Va. She’s author of "Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain" and past president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society — and

There are about 80 different species of magnolia native to the eastern United States and southeastern Asia, according to The United States National Arboretum. More information about magnolias globally can be found at the Magnolia Society International at

In Virginia, southern magnolia grows in eight southeastern counties, including the Eastern Shore, but with climate change, botanists suggest its range may be extending northward, according to Hamilton. The stately tree is also native to eastern North Carolina, south along the Atlantic Coast to central Florida and through the southern half of Georgia, according to the USDA Forest Service. Southern magnolia also thrives in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and southeast Texas.

Another southeastern magnolia is umbrella-tree, or M tripetala, which is found in about 19 eastern states. Growing in rich, organic soils in full sun or part shade, the plant prefers ravines with rich, calcareous soils. The tree produces white flowers, not showy and with a disagreeable odor. Leaves are spread at the branch tips, like the ribs of an umbrella.

Sweetbay magnolia, or M. virginiana, occurs throughout the Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions, and is not seen in mountain areas, according to Hamilton. The tree 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 clayey soils. You can find the tree as north as Long Island, N.Y., as far south as Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, west into eastern Texas, north into southern Arkansas and southwest into Tennessee, according to USDA Forest Service.

All three species start blooming in April and produce fruits by the end of October, says Hamilton.

Two popular nonnative 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.

Beetles and magnolias

Without beetles, the glorious white flowers of southern magnolia would not appear, 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 (Nitidulidae), tumbling flower beetles (Mordellidae), leaf beetles such as the cottonwood leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) and weevils (Curculionidae), among others, continues Hamilton.

Beetles have chewing mouthparts, and many plants support different beetle species on their leaves, shoots, roots, flowers and pollen. Some beetles are specific for a plant species. For example, the milkweed leaf beetle (Labidomera clivicollis) feeds exclusively on the leaves of milkweed plants, leaving nothing for the milkweed butterfly caterpillars.

Leaf beetles defend themselves against predators in interesting ways, according to Hamilton. For example, the cottonwood leaf beetle larva secretes a nasty smelling liquid, absorbing the droplets when danger is past.

Weevils are by far the most diverse animals on the planet, with more than 40,000 described species worldwide. Weevils have a long snout, with their mouth parts at the end of the projection. Females drill a hole in an acorn, or a pecan or a sunflower stem, then turn around and deposit an egg within. Their ability to hide eggs gives weevils the chance to use niches not available to other beetles, which may explain their diversity.



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