Magnolia fraseri, Fraser Magnolia - 8 (4)

by Tom Atkinson

The magnolia is a tree of ancient lineage. If you live in the southern USA, the type magnolia would be the bull bay or southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). In the northern USA or in the more temperate regions of Canada, the most common magnolia is the saucer magnolia (M. soulangiana), the one with the chalice-like, rose-coloured flowers that are a clear sign that spring is upon us. And there are so many more, from large shrubs to large trees. One of the latter is the cucumber magnolia (M. acuminata), the only one indigenous to Canada.

In the mid-to-southern stretch of the Appalachian Mountains, and in the adjacent Blue Ridge mountains, is found a magnolia of merit. The Fraser magnolia (Magnolia fraseri) is a small tree (nine to 15 metres or 10 to 16 yards in height, if found growing naturally in its range). Also known as mountain magnolia, it grows in a very restricted area. Its natural range is centred along all but the peaks of the mountains as they stretch from West Virginia to the very north of Alabama. It is hardy much further north, and a specimen grows in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, where winters can be severe.

Fraser magnolia possesses many commendable features obliging the lustful gardener to coddle any specimens s/he grows to ensure success. That said, one of the attractions of this magnolia is its hardiness; this may seem an unusual way to praise a tree, but if you garden where winters can be severe, this feature commends itself. Aesthetically, the tree will never rival other magnolias. But what sets it off are flowers, leaves and bark. The upright flowers are fragrant and a dazzling white. The leaves are “eared” or auriculate. That is, where the leaf stem meets the leaf itself, instead of there being a smooth transition forward from stem to leaf edge, that edge does a 180 degree bend backward on both sides, before curving around again and continuing on to the tip. This feature is quite pronounced.

For those who love our beeches (Fagus spp.), the smooth grey bark is how we learn to identify the tree. Now, if you are in the Blue Ridge Mountains and accompany your tour leader along a choice trail he has selected, he may pause at a good- sized beech. But when he asks you if you can identify the tree, you wise up and sense that there is a twist involved. The astute in the tour group look up, see the few coarse branches, and think “Hey, this is no Beech!” When the limbs are bare, and you scan the buds, it becomes evident that a magnolia is at hand. If it is summer, consult the leaves. The first time you see a goodly sized Fraser magnolia it is breathtaking.

The best seed source I have found for magnolias is the Magnolia Society International. I acquired wild-collected seed for Fraser magnolia from them in spring 2000. The seed came from high in the hills of West Virginia. I prefer wild-collected seed for reasons which include the sheer romance of collection, as well as knowing you have the real McCoy. The seeds germinated nicely, there was no fungal-induced die-off of the seedlings (which can be a problem and bears your attention), so I was quite pleased.

My experience with woody plants that do not naturally grow in my vicinity is that I should wait until their first spring (when they are a year old) to plant them out or even the second spring (pawpaw or Asimina triloba is one such). If you look into the soil and moisture conditions that favour good growth of Fraser magnolia – see the USDA Silvics manual in the sidebar – what you read will be quite sobering. Where we garden, you cannot just plunk certain plants in the ground and know that they will thrive. Rhododendrons may be quite hardy, but require much more acidic soil than we have. With Fraser magnolia, acidity in the soil, good soil moisture, and only dappled sunlight are a must. If you do not have them, or cannot realize them, then best plant a cucumber magnolia or an umbrella magnolia (M. tripetala).

Growth in the garden is not slow, but neither is it fast. As gardening is a lifetime addiction, it’s fair to assume that those who are bitten by the Fraser magnolia bug are willing to give garden specimens time. I visit ours regularly to see how they fare, and have been gratified with progress. The largest of the specimens is now about two metres but still too young to flower. That it is thriving is enough for me. Live long and prosper, Fraser magnolia!

Tom Atkinson, his wife, two cats, and visiting raccoons, squirrels, and birds live in the centre of Toronto. The garden is naturalized, a “country in the city” one. Tom is a burnt-out hulk insofar as belonging to native plant societies these days. It is hoped that a summer’s rest will rekindle his enthusiasm.

Cultivation Native Plants to Know Magnolia fraseri, Fraser Magnolia - 8 (4)