I met my first southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) in a tree identification class at Merritt College in Oakland, CA a couple decades ago. From then on, I mostly witnessed them stationed in small street-side squares of dirt struggling to survive. Chlorotic, mis-pruned and heavy-headed, I wasn’t impressed with these trees. Back then I was new to the plant world, particularly impressed by California natives and permaculture perfect plants, and the southern magnolia was neither.
So when I bought my little west side Sonoma house the large southern magnolia just off the backyard patio did not excite me. I was too enthralled with my fig tree to pay much attention. But over the years my Little Miss Sally Magnolia has grown on me. I’ve learned to love her – almost as much as my fig. Here’s why.
1. My southern magnolia (SM) provides excellent shade all year long. Her leaves are large, lush, wavy, deep green and shiny. I sit under her shadow as much as possible contemplating life, drinking my morning coffee, reading, and dreaming of landscape improvements to my back yard.
2. Although most SM trees require moderate water and relatively rich soil I don’t have to irrigate or fertilizer this tree. She’s been planted in a very large landscape bed with virtually no root zone impediments. (That’s key – not surrounded by concrete.) Like my fig tree, she is old and wily enough to have found her own source of water. She grows at least a foot a year – which is average for a healthy SM.
3. In spring she flaunts pure white, sweet smelling ten inch blossoms. The bees love it!
4. Birds love her bright red berries. Yum, Yum. And the birds love to jump and play and nest and hide in her branches. My SM is a virtual bird hotel – providing me with endless hours of avian entertainment.
5. From a permaculture perspective the SM tree is a biomass plant extraordinaire. In other words, she’s messy. Nearly year round she sheds large leaves, plentiful petals, and sizeable seed pods. This biomass can be utilized as soil protecting, soil building, water-conserving planting bed mulch. Why buy mulch when your own SM tree provides it for free? If you are a neat-nick like me lots of leaf litter could be a problem. A messy tree does demand more sweeping, raking and plucking leafs out of your understory plants. If those extra chores bother you, install your new SM in a large naturalistic planting bed in the back of the garden. Enjoy her from afar.
6. Finally, I have read that the SM tree has both medicinal and edible qualities. According to www.urbanherbology.org, magnolia petals are used in traditional Japanese and Chinese medicine. The author has a recipe for magnolia petal honey. I haven’t tried it yet but will report back when I do. Organicfacts.net reports that extracts of magnolia bark and/or flowers can assist with anxiety, menstrual cramps, weight loss, allergies and diabetes.