As I was getting ready for work this morning, I glanced out the window and noticed a blob of white in the woods. One of my bigleaf magnolias is blooming, and its dinner-plate sized flower is hard to miss. That’s flower singular; there’s only one this year, but such a large bloom on a 5-foot (1.5 m) tall sapling is still impressive. The curling petals are each about 8″ (20 cm) long, and the flower has a natural spread of about 12″ (30 cm). Even that is dwarfed by the giant 24″ (61 cm) leaves.
The bigleaf magnolia, Magnolia macrophylla, is native to a couple of counties in the western North Carolina piedmont and, more broadly, to the southern Appalachians southeast to Louisiana. If you live in the Durham/Chapel Hill/Raleigh area, you can see a stand of trees in Chapel Hill, in Battle Park.
The closely related Magnolia ashei (syn. Magnolia macrophylla subsp. ashei) is found only along the Apalachicola River in northern Florida. This is a smaller tree, often a large shrub, with proportionally smaller leaves and flowers (though still very large compared to most trees).
Both Magnolia macrophylla and M. ashei are fantastic garden plants. The flowers are beautiful and wonderfully fragrant, though short-lived, and children are fascinated by the giant leaves. I have planted three young trees at the edge of the woods in partial shade. Two were labeled M. macrophylla and one M. ashei, though to be honest, I can’t see any difference between them. The flowering tree is the one that was labeled M. ashei, and that species is reported to bloom when very young. However, the size of the flower seems to be a better match for M. macrophylla. I don’t know. Perhaps it is a garden hybrid of the two.