The grand magnolia of literary and historical note is the Southern magnolia, or Magnolia grandiflora. It is also the official flower of several American states. The flowers are huge, immaculately white and framed to perfection by glossy, deep-green foliage. And at night they seem to glow with a ghostly beauty. But even if you couldn't see these blooms, the scent would make their presence known. And what a scent it is, combining lemon and ginger and sweet spice, quite unforgettable. And on a more practical note, this superb flowering tree of the North American forests is a broadleaf evergreen. Year round shiny, green leaves clothe the heavy, spreading branches, making the Southern magnolia a superb privacy screen.

These remarkable trees are ubiquitous in the American south and are only limited by their great size (they can reach 80 feet with a 40 foot spread) which few modern gardens can accommodate. And yet it is one of the most dramatic blooming trees in existence. Fortunately, there has been a lot of work in the last twenty years selecting varieties that have made improvements on the species, improvement in size but also in cold-hardiness since their range was limited to mild winter regions.

‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ is a significant cultivar that is much more winter hardy growing across the southern half of the US and up the east and west coasts. It typically grows to 30 feet with a dense, oval crown, and produces flowers and leaves that are approximately half the size of the species. The intensely fragrant white flowers appear in late spring, and bloom sporadically throughout the summer. ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ has done much to extend the Southern magnolia into regions that had never seem magnolias before. The other great advance is found in Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’, a much smaller cultivar that slowly grows to a compact, upright, small tree reaching 20 feet tall in as many years. It has a columnar habit and rarely gets any wider than eight feet over time. It features glossy green leaves (to 5” long) that are bronze-brown underneath. Leaves typically drop to the ground in spring as new foliage emerges. ‘Little Gem’s size makes this Southern magnolia workable in almost any landscape where enough light is available.

The dramatic, fragrant white flowers of a Southern magnolia bloom in summer and give way to spherical cones that mature in late summer, that produce brilliant scarlet seeds, also quite showy against the dark foliage.

The Southern magnolia  is now available to many more gardeners throughout the US, but also the UK, New Zealand and Australia with more and more tree nurseries carrying the splendid cultivars.

Southern magnolia


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