Mother Nature’s Garden — Magnolias bloom offering fragrant pleasure

Published 4:47 pm Friday, July 15, 2022

It’s magnolia time! The sweetbay magnolias have finished blooming in the wet lowlands along the High Bridge Trail, but the iconic southern magnolias all over our area are still covered with intensely fragrant blooms. And if you go to the Quarry Gardens at Schuyler, you’ll find plenty of  umbrella magnolias there.

Magnolias are ancient plants that developed before bees appeared. Their flowers are structured to attract and encourage pollination by beetles. Unlike most other angiosperms (flowering plants), magnolias have their stamens and pistils arranged in spirals on a conical receptacle. The carpels are thick to avoid damage by beetles. The fruit is a cone-like aggregate of follicles containing seeds with fleshy red to orange coatings. The seeds are dispersed by birds.

Six species of magnolias are found in Virginia: the bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla); the cucumber magnolia (M. acuminata); the southern magnolia (M. grandiflora); the sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana); the umbrella magnolia (M. tripetala); and the Fraser magnolia (M. fraseri), which is also known as the cucumber tree.

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The bigleaf magnolia is a deciduous tree native to the southeastern United States and eastern Mexico that is renowned for its leaves, which are the largest simple leaves of any tree indigenous to North America. The leaves can be 24 to 30 inches long. The bigleaf magnolia is rare in Virginia, found only in Lee County.

The cucumber magnolia is a deciduous tree with glaucous-green blooms tinged with yellow that is found in mesic and dry mesic montane forests. The immature cones resemble small cucumbers.

The southern magnolia isn’t native to Virginia but has naturalized in some areas. It’s a large evergreen tree with glossy green leaves and very fragrant blooms. It’s the aristocrat of magnolias.

The sweetbay or swamp magnolia is a small tree/large shrub that is deciduous/evergreen. It has creamy white blooms with a lemony fragrance. The sweetbay magnolia is common in the Coastal Plain and infrequent in the inner Piedmont. There is a disjunct population in Augusta County.

The umbrella magnolia is a deciduous understory tree with an irregular distribution in Virginia. It has large ovate leaves up to 24 inches long and arranged in whorl-like clusters resembling the spokes of an umbrella. The flowers have an unpleasant scent.

The Fraser magnolia or earleaf magnolia is a small understory tree that frequently has multiple stems. The common name earleaf magnolia refers to the earlobe-shaped bases of the leaves. This magnolia is similar to the umbrella magnolia. Its leaves are arranged in whorls, and the white or yellow blooms have an unpleasant odor. The Fraser magnolia is found in montane forests and is common in the southwestern mountains and Highland County.

Although the southern magnolia is the grand dame of many gardens, it requires lots of space and can be quite untidy. It sheds leaves throughout the year, and they are too tough to be shredded by a lawnmower. The sweetbay magnolia, however, is smaller and tidier while still providing amazing fragrance. It’s perfect.

Dr. Cynthia Wood is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. Her email address is