With spring in the air, trees and flowers popping up everywhere, let’s talk about the origin of flowering plants, specifically, one of the original flowering trees: the Magnolia. Driving around Arlington around April, and even later, you will see these trees scattered throughout the landscape. Native and non-native magnolias alike, they all tend to have large flowers, but otherwise come in all shapes and sizes.
As plants evolved, their method of reproduction became more and more involved over time. It started with spores, which had to find their way to other plants’ spores by swimming through moist soil. Next came wind pollination, where fertilization happened through dispersal of reproductive material in the air (blame these plants for your pollen allergies). Finally, flowers, which co-evolved with animals like insects and bats, carried material from one tree to another, allowing them to expand their range significantly faster.
Magnolias were one of the earliest adopters of this method, using gigantic flowers and strong fragrance to attract insects. Yesterday, I identified a magnolia before seeing it, smelling it from more than a block away. Most magnolias are not pollinated by what we traditionally associate with pollinators. Bees had not evolved to the extent they have now, and magnolias are actually beetle-pollinated (with one exception being the tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)).
Our native magnolias
Magnolias tend to be more common south of Arlington, but there are three that are historically native to our community (See vaplantatlas.org for information on what species are native to different parts of Virginia).
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
The sweetbay is a beautiful semi-evergreen tree/shrub in Arlington, only holding on to its leaves in warmer winters. In its original range, it gets to larger tree size, but here it tends to top out at 30 feet tall. Its flowers are typical large white flowers for magnolias, usually blooming between May and June. This tree is common in magnolia bogs, one of which exists in Arlington’s Barcroft Park. They love wet feet and do well in bioretention gardens. They are also excellent for street tree planting, where tall trees are not an option.
Umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala)
A less common native, Arlington does have some excellent specimens of this tree in Pimmit Run in north Arlington. The leaves are gigantic, sometimes up to two feet in length and the tree gets fairly sizeable. The flower is less rounded than typical magnolias and is not always visible from the ground as its a tall tree. They’re not commonly planted and not readily available in the nursery industry, but would make an excellent addition to any yard.
Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Arlington’s largest magnolia is not actually in the magnolia genus (but still in the Magnoliaceae family). This is commonly referred to as the tulip poplar, an unfortunate relic of colonial times, when Europeans did not have a better name to give this tall, straight tree. Tulip trees, along with white oaks, probably make up the majority of our county’s forest. They have very straight trunks, with unusual tulip-shaped leaves. Its flower is the least obvious of the magnolias, but when viewed up close it’s a real treat. Like the umbrella magnolia, it’s sometimes hard to see the flower, high up in the tree, but when you do (or when a squirrel chews one off) it’s very detailed and delicate. This is the only magnolia in this area that is pollinated by bees. Its height has made it less accessible to beetles, and this probably means it evolved later in the earth’s history. The nectar from this tree creates a deep, dark honey, unrivaled by many of the other nectar sources in the area in its complexity.
While tulip trees make magnificent open-grown trees, I do not recommend planting them close to buildings or along streets, as they have a tendency to drop limbs unannounced and do not tolerate root disturbance well.
Common non-native magnolias
Because of their natural beauty, magnolias have been cultivated far and wide, being shipped from Asia, but also vice versa, out of the United States. Some species native farther south of Arlington, like the Southern Magnolia, have even naturalized in some of our forests. Because of their primitive pollination methods, they do not tend to become invasive, although they will grow in colonies where planted. In the spring, the most obvious ones are the Asian varieties, with their bold white, pink, purple and even yellow flowers. There is one common American species, and two common Asian varieties (though many more are planted). A great place to visit all the possible cultivated varieties is the National Arboretum in Washington, DC.
Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
The only consistently evergreen tree on this list, it is native to the South, and the inspiration for every country song featuring the familiar scent of magnolias. Common around bogs in its original range, it fares well in any flat area throughout Arlington. The flowers are not as prolific as some of the Asian magnolias, but they tend to pop up throughout the summer providing a longer time period to enjoy them. The leaves are thick and leathery, creating a little bit of a mess, but if swept under the tree they will decay and return their nutrients easily. Aside from being an excellent large evergreen tree, it’s often used by children as a beginners climbing tree, as its lower branches tend not to be pruned away in the nursery allowing for easy access.
Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata)
Blooming right now in early April, this is the smallest tree in this collection of magnolias. Easily reduced to shrub size, I have seen it grow up to 20 feet. The flower, by unobservant passersby, occasionally gets confused as a cherry flower, but its size should clue you in, at two to three inches, and with a significantly different arrangement. I believe it’s the eagerness to see the white cherry trees in bloom that confuses many people in its identification. Star magnolias are deciduous, with a very attractive, gray, almost beech-like bark. A great plant for small spaces needing some accent, and a great announcement of spring. Even after flowering, the trees have a pleasant, rounded leaf, with a soft green shine.
Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)
One of my favorite trees in the spring, this flower giant explodes in pinks, purples and whites all over the county. Really, nothing compares to it in sheer flower volume, not even the cherries or dogwoods. Similar in bark and arrangement as the Star Magnolia, it does tend to get a little larger, with trees reaching up to 40 feet. Give this tree some space to spread out and it will not disappoint you. Some of my favorite places to view these trees are at the Cambridge Courts apartments off Fillmore Street and Rt. 50, and along N. Glebe Rd, near 16th St N. There is a row of older-aged saucer magnolias here that are absolutely stunning around this time of year
Enjoy the spring!
To find out more about what the best place to plant a magnolia (or other tree) is, look on our Recommended Trees Page