The holidays are here and for some that means Christmas trees, garland, poinsettias and wreaths. Now, when many think of trees this time of year, they envision the “harder” pyramid styles of Fraser fir, Balsam fir & Douglas fir. However, if you are a true “plant geek” Nordmann fir, Noble fir, Korean fir, Grand Fir and White fir may also enter your mind. And should we want to take this to a stratospheric level, Vilmorin’s fir, Abies x vilmorinii comes to my mind. Interesting side note, Vilmorin’s epithet is in honor of Pierre Louis Francois Lévêque de Vilmorin who is famous, in my world anyway, for developing a theory of heredity in plants. Vilmorin “recognized that it was possible to select certain characteristics of a plant and develop new varieties displaying the chosen characteristics” (conifersociety.org). Vilmorin fir is a hybrid of Greek fir, Abies cephalonica and Spanish fir, Abies pinsapo. But I digress. While all of these tree types have a “typical pyramidal apex” there is a tree, a broadleaf evergreen, whose outline is somewhat pyramidal, but with a softer rounded outline.
Southern Magnolia, Evergreen Magnolia or Bull Bay Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, is a tree that can grow 40-60 feet tall and 20-30 feet wide. A native tree, cultivated since the mid 1700’s, this tree is often found in the wild in moist areas, in alluvial soil, under larger counterparts. Despite one of its common names, Southern Magnolia, is actually perfectly “hardy” here in New Jersey. However, some cultivars are simply more cold tolerant than others. But, it’s the possibilities this evergreen offers for the holidays that reminds me of the usefulness many landscape plants can have in our colder months. Continuing with the academics of this tree, Bull Bay magnolia has lustrous, large dark green leaves with fragrant, lemon-scented, creamy-white flowers. Flowers happen in May & June, then sporadically throughout the summer. Following this, stunning spherical cone-like fruiting clusters happen, eventually releasing rosy-red coated seeds in the fall. Fruit described as an “aggregate of follicles, 3-5” long, splitting open to expose the red seeds.” Evergreen Magnolia appreciates a full day of sun. However, it is tolerant of some shade and certainly needs protection from desiccating winds. So planting this tree on the west side of your property should be reconsidered unless you are willing to wrap it with burlap or spray it with an anti-desiccant. An anti-desiccant helps prevent excessive moisture loss of broadleaf evergreens in the winter. Consider spraying this product, before you turn your outdoor water off, as it helps provide a long lasting, protective coating, holding moisture in for several months. Essentially though, this is a relatively problem free tree.
Two of the “hardiest” cultivars on the market today are ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ and ‘Edith Bogue’. ‘Bracken’s’, in my opinion, is the most cold tolerant and a fantastic cultivar to consider. I have personally seen this plant survive and thrive as far north as Boston and as far west as Ohio. Acknowledging the previously mentioned attributes, this cultivar exemplifies the best of all of them and has far less leaf drop than other varieties. Additionally, the leaf’s indumentum, rust-colored markings on the back side of the leaf, is one of the most pronounced, offering great contrast to the foreside. Introduced by Ray Bracken of South Carolina, this should be one of the easiest cultivars to find at your local independent garden center. ‘Edith Bogue’, another hardy clone, has taken on Mother-Natures worst and proved its worth. I am particularly fond of this cultivar as I have seen the original in Montclair, New Jersey. My dear friend, Stephen Schuckman, brought me to Edith Bogue’s home more than a dozen years ago and we both marveled at her tree. The “open framework” was evident on this older specimen and while it hails from New Jersey, by way of a seedling purchased in Florida in 1917, I would have to give the nod to Mr. Bracken’s find.
Christmas wreaths, bundles of greens and garland are all heightened with the introduction of Magnolia grandiflora into them. There’s just something about the richness of their large glossy leaves, backed with terrific orange-rust markings, that help make your decorating “pop”. This winter, scrutinize your garden with a different eye. Pay attention to what’s in your garden and consider adding a sprig or branch to your holiday creations. The bright colored marking of mop cypress, Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’ and blue spruce will add a dynamic punch to the darker blue-green needles of Fraser and Balsam fir. And, in so doing, you may just become the envy of your friends as you showcase your more creative side.