“Welcome To The Jungle”

Magnolia honors the French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715) and there are several that differentiate themselves from “Star” and “Saucer” types. I have a friend who moved to Tampa, Florida and I am always amazed at the color and bold texture his plants afford him. Bright colors and tropical vegetation are indicative of warmer climates and have me covet what he now takes for granted. Often when I land at Newark Airport, after visiting my friend Ján, we talk about how “devoid of color” we are here in New Jersey during our coldest months. However, there are some magnolia that, despite their tropical appearance, are truly “hardy” and have me reminiscing about my friend and Tampa’s climate.

Umbrella Magnolia, Magnolia tripetala, is tropical looking with huge, single white flowers in the summer. Typical with all the magnolia discussed in this article, it is their enormous leaves that drives the “tropical vibe.” Umbrella Magnolia has its name because its leaves are held in whorl-like clusters at the stem tips, in an umbrella-like configuration. Large, shiny, oblong leaves, almost 2 feet long and 10 inches wide, makes you think of the tropics, almost dismissing the fact that this tree is native to the Appalachian Mountains. Found in ravines and along streams from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, Magnolia tripetala grows almost 30 feet tall and about half as wide. Malodorous (earthy), creamy white flowers, almost a foot wide, are followed by pink, cone-like fruits in the fall. Hardy from zones 5-8, Umbrella Magnolia enjoys moist, fertile, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Important to note, this magnolia can be confused with Bigleaf magnolia; however, the leaf base of Umbrella is “V-shaped” and Bigleaf is “B-shaped” (bernheim.org).

Ashe’s Magnolia, Magnolia macrophylla ssp. ashei, is my second choice of these “tropical beauty” types. “A tropical look for temperate gardens” (www.rarefindnursery.com), Ashe’s Magnolia has gargantuan leaves and flowers. Their flowers are a foot wide, fragrant white and maroon at their base. Papery-textured leaves, up to two feet long, give this an impressive presence in the right garden setting. Ashe’s Magnolia is hardy to zone 6 (5) and reportedly flowers in adolescence, as early as 2-3 feet tall. A spreading, deciduous tree that flowers in the early summer, some liken the flower scent to that of jasmine and citrus.  Another native that enjoys moist, well-drained soil, keep this one away from wet areas! Another good tip for this magnolia is pruning it in the late summer or winter to prevent the bleeding of sap. Capable of growing 10 to 20 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide, remember trees don’t read books and often can surpass textbook verbiage. I have personally seen a 30-foot-tall Magnolia ashei at a private residence in Basking Ridge, NJ. This scaled-down version seems to fit today’s modern garden quite well. Let’s not forget its showy, rose-colored fruit or the fact that most magnolia are deer resistant.

The last of the large “banana leaf type” magnolia, discussed here, is Cloudforest Magnolia, Magnolia dealbata. Previously considered to be a variety of Magnolia macrophylla, recent taxonomic research now suggests it belongs to a number of species, M. nuevoleonensis, M. rzedowskii, M. vovidesii as well as a few others. Magnolia dealbata is a large tree found in the cloud forest of Northern Oaxaca, Mexico. Last year I was gifted a Cloudforest Magnolia from a good friend and it has survived, despite this past winter’s lasting grip on us all. Mexico has been touted as a good place to see magnolia, however recent deforestation has proven this more difficult. Thought to be extinct at one point, Cloudforest Magnolia was rediscovered in 1977. Used for timber and as a medicinal plant for heart problems, Cloudforest’s colossal leaves and flowers are a given here too. A larger tree than Magnolia ashei, Magnolia dealbata grows 30 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide. Hardy from zones 5A- 10A, bright shade is recommended for this deciduous beauty. This will be my first year having this tree in our garden and despite its diminutive size, I am expecting great things.

Every time I see a large leaf magnolia I can’t help but think of the song “Welcome To The Jungle.” A song by American rock band Guns N’ Roses, featured on the debut album, Appetite for Destruction (1987). The story goes, the lyrics were inspired by an encounter Axl Rose and a friend had with a homeless man coming out of a bus in New York. The homeless man yelled out, “You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby; you’re gonna die!” Despite the fact that the lyrics are reflective of two runaways, initially making their way in the world, the lyrics somehow strike a horticultural chord with me.