Skip to content

Bigleaf again

2010 May 13

Bigleaf magnolia flower appears first in upright urn-shape vase form. Photo by Betsy Green Moyer

By Ken Moore

I described bigleaf Magnolia, Magnolia macrophylla, last year (Flora, 7/16/09). The large leaves, arranged umbrella-like at the ends of the branches, create a tropical feeling in the forest landscape. There is a mature planted specimen overhanging Bill Bracey’s hillside patio in the heart of Chapel Hill.

Bill’s inspired placement of that tree is such that you can enjoy looking up through the whorls of giant leaves or down upon them from his hillside vantage point.

Viewing that tree this past week in full flower was another of those “oh wow” experiences. All in one plane was a three-day flowering sequence of about-to-open bud, a flower in early urn-shape phase and a third, wide-open flower.

What a show!

A good place to view bigleaf is in the northern section of Coker Arboretum near the grove of big cypress trees. It still has flowers opening way up high. At the N.C. Botanical Garden, you will find a nice specimen in the woodland garden behind the Totten Center. It still has buds and flowers lower down, offering a closer view.

This native magnolia has a curious distribution across the Southeastern states, from southern Ohio and southwestern Virginia down through eastern Tennessee, the central Carolinas, western Georgia and extending to Alabama, Mississippi, northern Louisiana and finally southeastern Arkansas. You are most likely never going to see it in the wild, though occurrences continue to be documented by botanists.

Every time I see Bill’s bigleaf magnolia, I realize I have let another year pass without planting one of my own.

Fortunately, keen plantsmen keep propagating this magnificent tree, so it is sometimes available in nurseries and garden centers. Camellia Forest Nursery west of Carrboro still has some small ones, good sizes for successful planting this time of year. If your favorite nursery doesn’t have bigleaf, ask them to get some.

While admiring bigleaf, I reflect on how the magnolia is a very primitive plant family; it’s been moving around on this land for a long, long time.

Then I reflect on its close relative, the common tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, also flowering now, with its small green and yellow tulip-shaped flowers so high on the tree we usually miss seeing them, unless finding fallen ones underfoot.

And then I think of Davie Poplar, that ancient tulip-tree, under the shade of which legend describes the university’s founding fathers making their decision to site the future university right here more than 200 years ago.

And then I am reminded of that fine exhibit “Noble Trees, Traveled Paths: The Carolina Landscape since 1793” in Wilson Library’s Carolina Collection Gallery through May 31.

Bigleaf flower has three impressive stages: (left to right) bud, upright vase-shape and wide-open horizontal. Photo by Ken Moore.

With most of the students on summer leave, now is a good time to find access to this exhibit. It’s more than pictures of old trees. Exhibit curators Linda Jacobson and Bill Burk have weaved a memorable story of the rich natural and human heritage of this place we call home. It is sad the exhibit cannot remain permanently. It deserves publication as a small guide to campus heritage.

Don’t miss seeing it!

And don’t miss seeing bigleaf in flower, and planting one of your own.

Comments are closed.