Glossy leaves brighten winter

Glossy leaves brighten winter

By: By JIMMY WILLIAMS Special to The Messenger

By JIMMY WILLIAMS
Special to The Messenger
The sun by this last week in January has begun its almost imperceptible climb toward its summer position in the sky, but is yet ensconced deep to the south.
Because of this low declination, any weak light offered is more readily reflected off whatever glossy surface is at hand. Witness the difficulty driving on bright days, when the sun’s rays deflect off almost anything and right into your eyes.
This reflection factor works to the advantage of those who can appreciate winter’s relatively scarce garden attractions. Any glossy leaf — and it must of necessity be one of a broadleaf evergreen — results in a cheering effect that few other winter offerings provide.
When it comes to this shiny winter effect, just about the top producer is the southern magnolia. Common here and further south (and slightly further north) our evergreen magnolia is Magnolia grandiflora. That botanical monicker translates to “grand-flowered magnolia.”
And grand indeed are the flowers, which can range to a foot or more across and provide an exquisite lemony fragrance in their season in late spring and early summer.
At this winter season the flower effect is moot. The leaves are the winter raison d’etre for the magnolia’s existence. There is nothing in the landscape to approach it.
When sited to the south of the viewer’s perspective, the low winter sun literally lights up an evergreen magnolia almost as if it had lights on it.
We have several specimens so sited. Some of them are 100 yards or so to the southwest of our kitchen window, and the late evening (by 3 p.m. in mid-winter) sun reflects with alacrity off the large leaves.
These trees are understory in a woodland of oaks and hickories, causing them to branch more sparsely than they would in more open areas. They are, nonetheless, the winter feature on that part of our grounds.
Most of our southern magnolias are seedling trees. There are nowadays a number of newer and better varieties which offer tighter growth habit, darker green leaves and more reliable bloom earlier in the tree’s life.
The latter factor is important. Named varieties will produce bloom very early, sometimes in the first year from a three-gallon specimen, while seedling trees sometimes take many years to push forth even one flower.
Popular in recent years has been Little Gem. A somewhat dwarf version of the species, it will grow to perhaps 20 feet instead of the 50 feet or more of seedlings. It also produces bloom very quickly. Flowers are about half the size of those of larger named varieties and seedling trees.
A major problem with Little Gem is its gawky growth habit, loose and lopsided unless pruned in a nursery for a number of years. Those treated thusly are, understandably, more expensive due to increased growing time and labor costs.
A more suitable variety of similar size is Teddy Bear. It is tighter in habit and more thickly branched.
In mid-size named varieties comes D.D. Blanchard, recommended by more authorities than any other. It has darker green foliage, very glossy, with a pleasing dark brown indumentum, or fuzz, on the under side of each leaf.
A grove of Blanchards has recently been planted on the east side of Holy Cross Catholic Church. Blanchard is also one of the most cold-hardy varieties, and some of them have been planted as far north as middle Illinois.
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Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 1.29.08

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