The magnolia of the South, M. grandiflora, is a tree that many Southerners have mixed feelings about, and certainly I do.
No tree makes a house gloomier, though I have a somewhat depraved friend from Valdosta who has planted these great evergreen trees all about her house and is happy now that they are getting large enough to defy any light of heaven.
In England, where gardeners are likely to do unreasonable things, this magnolia is a favorite for training flat against a house wall. The labor of whacking it back over the decades is, of course, incalculable.
The "correct" way to grow this magnolia is to plant it in soil heavily laced with peat moss, then to give it plenty of water as a young tree. It grows with astonishing speed when well treated. The lower branches are left alone; indeed, the whole plant is left strictly alone, so that within 20 years you have branches touching the ground, and inside them you find a thick duff of leathery leaves, dead birds and other things, but at least from the outside the tree presents a noble appearance.
In bloom it is not very showy, as the enormous white suede-finished flowers are sprinkled here and there like raisins in a muffin. The two-day-old flowers turn brown, the petals (usually about nine) fall off and attractive five-inch velvety cones form with cells for individual scarlet seeds. These hang out on slender threads before dropping. I am not sure which birds eat them, probably mockingbirds, which eat everything including the sourest crab apples.
At my place I noticed a young magnolia perhaps 12 years ago, evidently from a seed dropped by a bird or other beast. It had only two leaves, then four, and I certainly did not want the great magnolia in my small garden, but of course did nothing about it. In time, I thought, it would provide plenty of fine leaves for bringing into the house -- the leaves look good in an old silver wine cooler.
The tree is now maybe 25 feet high and has bloomed well for several years. In our happy climate of warm summers all magnolias begin to flower while still bushes, though in cooler places gardeners allow 25 years for them to start.
Although I do not love this magnolia for my own garden, much preferring to see it at a distance on somebody else's property, I do admire the individual flowers. On June 9 I cut one that was 14 inches in diameter. In measuring, you lay a steel tape measure across the flower, not flattening the cupped petals out (which is cheating) but just thediameter as the flower naturally reposes.
Two days later I cut another one which measured 13 inches. Usually the magnolia flowers are 10 to 12 inches across, so these were noticeably larger than usual. There are several, perhaps many, named varieties of this magnolia, some said to be hardier than others, and some larger or smaller than average.
My bird-planted tree is as good as any, and I may as well admit that a 14-inch flower is impressive.
The fragrance of this magnolia is both obvious and overrated. It is powerful enough to scent an ordinary room if the windows are closed, and is agreeable enough with an undertone of turpentine and an overlay of lemon. It is not at all sweet in the way the night jasmine, tuberoses, gardenias or regal lilies are.
And certainly there is none of that even more beautiful scent of pinks, lilacs, alba roses or lilies of the valley.
As many persons of the North have infiltrated the American South and are cutting magnolias for the first time, a word about their behavior as cut flowers may be useful. First, you cut them in bud, but not too early. The buds begin as fat cones in a furry covering, then they turn into rather narrow tall white cones. Sometimes, when cut at that stage, they never open. Wait until the narrow white cones swell into almost white globes. At that stage they will open the next morning.
If cut when fully open it is hard not to damage the petals. If cut in globular bud Sunday evening when the sun is going down, they will open Monday and be beautiful until Tuesday night. On Wednesday they will be solid brown. The second day they will shed their large stamens, about a handful of them, all over the table or floor. That is why Southern women always put them on stone tables or at least large tables so the stamens could be gathered easily. If they fall on a carpet they do no harm that I know of, but are a nuisance to clean up.
Some excellent people are colorblind. Once I was summoned urgently to see a magnolia with shell-pink flowers. They turned out to be simply brown and aging blooms, but the proud owner of the tree saw them as rich pure pink.
Like waterlilies and buttercups, magnolias evolved long before most other flowering plants. I am not sure whether dinosaurs nibbled or smelled them, but at least they bloomed in full glory before any ancestor that could be called human.
Formerly, before people learned they could frame paintings of solid yellow, or stripes or spatters, all Southern art shows included paintings of this magnolia. It was thought all the best people had such watercolors somewhere about the house. Fewer such magnolia portraits are produced now, I believe.
The "common name" of this magnolia is said to be "bull bay," and I have often wondered about it. A bull bay would simply be a bay of large or coarse aspect, much as a horse chestnut is a coarse echo of the chestnut. The thing is, I never once heard the magnolia called a bull bay, not in more than half a century of listening. I wonder if "bull bay" is an invention of literary Yankees.