Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla): History, Cultivars, Growth Rate & Care

Bigleaf magnolia leaves and flower

Magnolia, (genus Magnolia), genus of about 225 species of trees and shrubs of the family Magnoliaceae native to North and South America, the Himalayas, and East Asia. They are valued for their large and fragrant white, yellow, pink, or purple flowers and frequently handsome leaves and unusual fruits. Some are important garden ornamentals; others are local timber sources.

Magnolias are an ancient group of plants, having evolved around 95 million years ago, and offer insights into the evolutionary development of floral structure.

Magnolia macrophylla, commonly referred to as the bigleaf magnolia, is a species of magnolia native to the southeastern United States and eastern Mexico. This species boasts the largest simple leaf and single flower of any native plant in North America. The flowers of this tree can grow up to 12 inches in diameter and have a beautiful, creamy white color with purple tinges at the base of the petals.

The tree was first discovered in 1789 by French naturalist and explorer Andre Michaux near Charlotte, North Carolina. This magnolia has played a role in many botanical research and exploration projects such as the Arnold Arboretum’s collaborative expedition to the Southeastern U.S. in 2016, which aimed to gather and nurture new voices in the field of plant exploration and to expand the living collection at the Arboretum.

Bigleaf magnolia is often short-lived under cultivation unless its rather demanding requirements are met. This tree likes loose, undisturbed rich mesic soil (or mulch and compost substitutes) in full sun or part shade with moist, well-drained soil and a low pH. This tree will likely succeed in sites that closely mimic its natural habitat and where it is protected from strong wind that can tatter its large foliage. It can be grown farther north than its southerly range suggests, but needs watering during extended dry periods. This plant is generally problem-free.

Identifying Characteristics and facts of Magnolia macrophylla (Bigleaf Magnolia)

  • Magnolia macrophylla is a deciduous tree
  • It is native to the southeastern United States and eastern Mexico
  • It is known for its large, showy flowers and huge leaves
  • The leaves of this tree can grow up to 3 feet long and 1 foot wide
  • The tree prefers moist, well-drained soils and partial shade to full sun
  • It is a slow-growing tree and may take 12 or more years to produce its first blooms
  • The tree can grow up to 65 feet tall and has a pyramidal shape when young, which becomes more rounded with age
  • The flowers of Magnolia macrophylla can grow up to 12 inches in diameter and have a beautiful, creamy white color with purple tinges at the base of the petals
  • The tree produces cone-like fruits that mature in late summer and contain bright red seeds
  • It is considered rare and is listed as threatened in North Carolina and endangered in Arkansas and Ohio
  • The tree has a large root system, which can spread out to support its size
  • The bark of Magnolia macrophylla is smooth and light brown in color when young, but becomes dark brown and scaly as the tree matures
  • The branches of the tree grow in a horizontal or slightly upward direction
  • The growth habit of Magnolia macrophylla is upright and spreading, with a rounded crown
  • The tree is hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8
  • It is a long-lived tree, with some specimens living for over 100 years

Cultivars of Magnolia macrophylla (Bigleaf Magnolia)

Magnolia macrophylla ‘Ashei’A rare and endangered variety, native to the Apalachicola River basin in Florida. It has relatively smaller leaves and flowers compared to the typical species and is more shrub-like in habit.
Magnolia macrophylla ‘Majestic Beauty’Feature large, showy flowers. It can grow up to 65 feet tall and has leaves up to 3 feet long.
Magnolia macrophylla ‘Satellite’It has slightly smaller leaves and flowers compared to the species but still retains the characteristic large leaves and showy blooms.
Magnolia macrophylla ‘Silver Star’This cultivar has glossy green leaves that are silvery-white on the underside. It produces large, fragrant, creamy white flowers that are up to 12 inches in diameter.
Magnolia macrophylla ‘Magnificent’A cultivar with an upright, pyramidal growth habit and large, glossy green leaves.

The Bark of Bigleaf Magnolia

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