Laurel Rimmer is Assistant Director of Public Programs. Among her many contributions are botanical drawings of plants found at Wave Hill, such as the sweetbay magnolia portrayed here.
The spectacle of spring has passed, and with it the boisterous spring flowers of the Asian magnolias and their hybrids. Now is the time to enjoy the lesser-known native American magnolias. Though the blossoms are a bit more subdued, other attributes make these plants worthy garden companions.
We grow four species of native magnolias at Wave Hill. The SUV of native magnolias, bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), is the largest of the lot. The mature tree has a tropical appearance with leaves up to three feet long. To match the beefy foliage, creamy-white flowers nearly a foot across unfurl a few at a time from late May through early June. A mature tree may reach 40 feet in height; its size and coarse appearance require a large space in the landscape. Slightly smaller in stature is the umbrella magnolia, Magnolia tripetala. On this multi-stemmed tree, two-foot leaves cluster at the tips of the branches like leafy green parasols. The white blossoms are a bit malodorous but are offensive only at close range. The umbrella magnolia is lovely in a woodland garden planted in the shade of larger trees. Look for these two magnolias cavorting together along the woodland edge south of the front gate.
The third magnolia is the sweetbay, Magnolia virginiana, pictured here. This small tree features smooth gray bark and a silvery underside to the leaves that flashes attractively in a stiff breeze. Lemon-scented flowers appear in late May and bloom on and off throughout the summer. Sweet bay also attracts wildlife to the garden: the aromatic leaves are food for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars and birds relish the bright red fruits. It is a perfect tree for a small garden or entrance courtyard where the sweetly scented flowers lure passers-by. At Wave Hill, two sweetbay magnolias greet visitors to Glyndor Gallery.
The last native magnolia in our collection is the southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora. Indispensable in southern gardens, this evergreen species suffers in our chilly New York winters; luckily for gardeners with southern magnolia-envy, several cultivars show increased cold-hardiness (to zone 5b). At Wave Hill, ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ joins the sweet bay magnolias in front of Glyndor Gallery and ‘Edith Bogue’ thrives near the delivery gate at West 252 Street. Both trees feature the dark shiny leaves and fragrant white flowers typical of the species. A protected site with shelter from winter winds is best for this classic southern tree.
With attractive foliage, flowers and fruit, Wave Hill’s native magnolias are more than one-season wonders. This season, experience their subtle beauty in person. Or, if you’re looking for a tree to plant at home, add these to your list; there is a native magnolia for almost every landscape.