For a few years when I was young, I went to Heathwood Hall School, when it was still in the old section of Columbia, and I remember early spring days when at recess we collected the purple and white flowers of a tulip magnolia, Magnolia soulangiana. My memories are of a much colder time and perhaps the weather didn’t jump around like it does now as by the time that deciduous magnolia, a native of Asia, flowered, spring had actually arrived and the blossoms lasted for several weeks. Now when those flowers appear, often in mid-February after an unseasonable warm spell has coaxed them out of hibernation, I feel a certain amount of despair as I know it will be only a short time before a killing freeze comes and turns those lovely goblets into wads of black tissue that persist on those otherwise graceful branches until the leaves finally appear.
What a contrast with our native magnolias. They flower in late April after their foliage has unfurled. Our side porch, with its north-facing exposure, is home to two Sweetbay magnolias whose open-leafed canopy lets us easily spy the small, upwardly facing fragrant blossoms. Magnolia virginiana is one of the trio of bay trees we find in our woodlands and is easily distinguished from Persea borbonia, redbay, or Gordonia lasianthus, loblolly bay, by the bluish-white underside of its leaves.
Sweetbay’s fragrance is slightly more delicate than that of its cousin, the evergreen Southern magnolia, but still pervades the air on a late spring evening. We used to climb out the window in my son’s room and pick blossoms from up high.
In Sumter’s Swan Lake Iris Gardens, these trees are found naturally growing in sun and in shade; even in full sun, they are loose and graceful, especially those which are characteristically multi-trunked, trunks that like those of their Asian cousins are smooth, gray and support lichens of multiple colors and patterns.
Sweetbays, which are semi-deciduous with some leaves hanging on all winter, have no fall color of note, but another truly deciduous native magnolia does put on a show. At Antley Springs in St. Matthews, what I thought was the mountain species Magnolia fraseri grows. Being a hopeless romantic, I imagined it had sprouted from a seed purposely or serendipitously deposited by those travelers. Forester Bruce White brought me back to reality when he identified our Calhoun County specimen as M. fraseri var. pyramidata which grows in the Coastal Plain. Regardless, its leaves, already pretty cool as they have ear-like lobes at their base, turn that almost burnt butter color so admired in hickories in the fall.
More taxonomic confusion occurs back in the flora growing at Swan Lake concerning another deciduous native I visit in the fall, collecting its leaves to use as centerpieces. I’m sticking with Magnolia ashei instead of Magnolia macrophylla var. ashei since at five feet three inches I don’t think everything short has to be a variety of something tall. These gigantic leaves are mottled in color but curl at their edges in the most charming way imaginable. When the children were little, they collected objects from the yard – berries, nuts, snail shells, dried okra pods – and made a display in a magnolia leaf container for each guest invited to Thanksgiving dinner. For color, a sprinkling of M&M’s seemed just the crowning touch. With a little bit of searching, you can find one of these charming natives for your yard.
Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and the host of “Making It Grow!” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/ extension/hgic/ Check out her blog at the Making it Grow! page at www.scetv.org