Native Plant Profile: Bigleaf Magnolia

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My favorite native tree is the Bigleaf magnolia. Sometimes known as the ‘newspaper tree’, the huge leaves of Magnolia macrophylla, can be as big as 30 inches long. When they collect on the ground in the fall, it looks as if someone spread newspapers under the tree. 

Bigleaf magnolias can be large trees. Although you rarely see big mature ones, these trees can reach over 100 feet tall. The National Champion is in Kentucky and stands 108 feet tall and 42 feet across. Heights of 30-40 feet are more typical.

Native across the southeast, the tree is relegated to small pockets here and there in the Appalachian foothills and Piedmont. The distance between individuals reduces pollination rates and seed set. Due to this fact and over-collection in the wild, the tree is declining across its range. Although originally documented in 1795, just west of Charlotte, NC by the famed plant explorer Andre Michaux, the tree is listed as threatened in North Carolina.

While all magnolia flowers are spectacular, the Bigleaf magnolia’s flowers are stupendous! The creamy white flowers can stretch up to 12 inches across. After the flowers fade, the typical hand grenade-shaped, pink colored fruits develop.

Magnolia macrophylla flower

Wendy Cutler CC BY-SA 4.0

Where does a gardener find one of these beauties for their garden? Unfortunately, these are nearly impossible to find in nurseries. Whatever you do, protect natural plant populations by avoiding collecting plants in the wild. Collecting some seed is ok. Bigleaf magnolia seeds should be stratified for 3 months at 35-45 degrees. Next plant seeds 1/2 inch deep in well-drained media in a moderately warm greenhouse. An enterprising horticulturist could probably do well by growing this plant from seed and selling them to native plant nurseries.