Marvelous Magnolias

April 7, 2020

This article was guest written by Greg Paige, Director of Horticulture & Curator, Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory Arboretum. Greg is one of our key speakers for the 2020 Annual Native Plant Symposium.

Asking me what my favorite tree is, is like asking a mother who is her favorite child. I love each one, equally of course. All of them! Nevertheless, there is a genus I am particularly ‘fond’ of slightly more than the others. Throughout my career, magnolia have always sparked my eye and usually, stopped me in my tracks. Currently at our Arboretum we have the biggest collection of magnolia cultivars in the world, according to the Magnolia Society. Among the flurry of colors, ridiculously abundant blooms and fragrance it is the group of big leaved magnolia that are, honestly, my favorites. Their bold, tropical looking foliage and texture will delight any plant lover. Their yellow to tan fall color and the following cascade and dusky blanket of large leaves surrounding their silver-gray trunks in one of my favorite things to stumble upon in the solitude of fall and early winter.

Magnolia fraseri, sometimes called mountain magnolia, is one of these big leaved magnolia species. It occurs throughout the Appalachian Mountains, from West Virginia southward through Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina and just into the mountains of Georgia. It is found on mesic sites on lower Appalachian slopes usually in rich, moist well-drained soil.  Usually a small tree, Magnolia fraseri can reach upwards into its mountain canopy to about 50 feet.  The trees gorgeo

us leave are usually 8 to 12 inches long. They are wider at the middle with a distinctive and best field identification characteristic of the auriculate or ear lobed shaped base. Depending on the elevation, creamy white large flowers appear from late April to late May.

Once you notice it in our mountains, it becomes easy to spot. Often while driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway you can spot it with a sharp eye. I have encountered it below the slopes of Mt. Mitchell. It also grows in, around, and through the Linville Gorge area, and throughout the slopes and ridges above the Davidson River in Pisgah Forest.

The next time you find yourselves in some of these special spots, I hope you get to see this favorite mountain dweller.