Grand magnolias indeed

Grand magnolias indeed

Posted: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 8:00 pm

A few days ago I was ambling through our “arboretum,” so called, a collection of trees and shrubs at the corner of East Blythe Street and Volunteer Drive.
The ground there is virtual hardpan clay with no topsoil. What little of the latter that once was there was removed and hauled away as fill dirt when an expansion of Henry County Medical Center was undertaken some 15 years or so ago. The contractors said it was the best fill dirt they had ever seen. That is all it is good for.
Anyhow, I was foolish enough to try to grow plants in the resulting subsoil and what few things that have survived years of drought and neglect are pretty tough plants indeed.
Among the rare fortuities there are three sizeable specimens of southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora. I never took any Latin but that easily translates to magnolia with grand flowers.
As I walked by one of them there shone forth, in September yet, some 20 or more of those magnificent white chalices that adorn the tree in much greater quantity in May. Fall flowering of southern magnolia isn’t common but does happen on occasion.
Those three trees are seedling specimens of the straight species. Many named varieties are available that have advantages over seedling trees. More of them anon.
Seedling southern magnolias take anywhere from five years to 20 or more to flower. Some are more prolific in bloom than others, and a few, like the one at hand, tend to rebloom after the big spring flush.
I lucked out on that one, since others in the vicinity flower little or not at all in autumn. I was due some luck, since losses on that hill have far exceeded the numbers that are yet alive.
Those flowers got me to thinking what a magnificent tree a southern magnolia — any southern magnolia — is. If, however, I were planting one today I would definitely go for one of the named varieties.
Among the best of the medium to large growing types (25 to 40 feet or so) is D.D. Blanchard. This one has darker and richer green leaves than the species, with fuzzy orange indumentum on the undersides of them. It flowers freely in spring and repeats a little later, but perhaps not as prolifically as my lucky seedling.
For good examples of this variety, take a gander of a grouping of seven (or is it five?) of them on the east side of the front of Holy Cross Catholic Church. Those were planted perhaps five years ago from five-gallon pots. They are now approaching 20 feet tall and make a quite attractive anchor to the pleasing architecture of the building’s facade.
Though the soil was well amended at planting and the staff there have been faithful to water religiously (no puns), it is still surprising how quickly they have grown. Southern magnolias are not as slow as sometimes supposed.
Among dwarf types (to 20 feet), Little Gem has been around for considerable years. It is a good repeater, flowers often appearing until frost, though the big blast is in spring. Little Gem does, however, have an irritating irregular growth habit, gawky in youth and difficult to change, though with consistent pruning at a young age, a more shapely tree is possible.
Better, in my opinion, is the more recent Teddy Bear. It has more rounded leaves and a tight, conical habit. In shade it won’t be quite as dense, but I have one in fairly deep shade that is shapely indeed. Bloom will be reduced, however, in proportion to the density of shade.
My friends in northern Illinois would give their eye teeth to be able to grow southern magnolia. Their best bet is the variety Edith Bogue, proven winter hardy as far north as Champaign, Ill. I want to get them one of these, but they are harder to find in the south, where other varieties are preferred.
 Incidentally (or not so incidentally in recent years) southern magnolias are more drought tolerant than is generally believed, though it is important in their early years to succor them during dry times.
Why am I writing about southern magnolias at a time when they’re not generally noticed? Because my lucky tree reminded me of them, and if I wait until spring I won’t remember it.
Then too, fall planting is a good idea, though some authorities recommend spring for any magnolia. With container grown plants, however, if the roots are not disturbed, I have found fall planting to be no problem. As a matter of fact, my grandsons plan to plant several for a client in a week or so.
Autumn Fest set
Don’t let this week pass without making it to the University of  Tennessee West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson on Airways Boulevard just off Highway 45 Bypass.
The annual Autumn Fest will be held Wednesday and Thursday. Events of the two days include plant sales, a massive and artistic display of hundreds of pumpkins grown on the grounds, garden seminars and a lecture series.
Widely regarded garden professionals Jason Reeves and Carol Reese put on this event, and several others during the year, for the education of both ornamental and food gardeners. The two are curators of the extensive gardens at the station, which themselves are worth a visit.
For more detailed information, go to utgardens.tennessee.edu/support.html. See you there.
Jimmy Williams is the garden writer for The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at (731) 642-1162.

Published in The Messenger 10.02.12

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