A Gardening Journal

Southern Magnolia 'Edith Bogue'

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The first bloom, ever, for my 'Edith Bogue' southern magnolia.  For those of you who swoon, I'll probably never be able to provide a better opportunity.  Oh, it's not like we're not used to happy southern magnolias here; I've got a pair of 'Bracken's Brown Beauty' nearly as high as the house.

 

But 'Edith Bogue' is a much higher mountain to climb.  This individual, in fact, was a rescue from a Providence, RI, garden, where it had been nearly crushed by the snow-load of a blizzard.  I replaced it with a 'Bracken's', which is hardier as well as stronger, and brought dear Edith home to my own gardens.  She needs extra help to handle heavy snow, hence the horizontal wires you see:  Edith is espaliered on a pipe frame against the hot south wall of the house.  With her branches gently but securely tied to the wires, even an ice-storm can't load her down so heavily that branches snap.

 

(Yes, having all your limbs tied to wires year-round is, in a way, like being held hostage.  But what if the bargain was that you'd be more beautiful then ever?  Edith is delighted, clearly.)

 

There are also tall yew hedges to the east and west of her.  With the house itself to the north, and, not twenty feet away to the south, yet another tall hedge, Edith is assured the Summer heat and the Winter mildness she really craves. 

 

In years to come, I'll extend Edith's espalier right up to the roof.  I want Edith to have all possible opportunity to ravish us with her charms.

 

Here's how to grow this glorious tree:

 

Latin Name

Magnolia grandiflora 'Edith Bogue''

Common Name

'Edith Bogue' Southern Magnolia

Family

Magnoliaceae, the Magnolia family.

What kind of plant is it?

Broad-leaved evergreen tree.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 9.

Habit

Upright, taller than wide.  Full to the ground unless limbed up.  Even in full sun, the foliage canopy is somewhat open; in shade, it's noticeably open.

Rate of Growth

Fast when in congenial surroundings.

Size in ten years

Under ideal hot-Summer and mild-Winter conditions, a tree fifteen to twenty feet tall and ten feet wide.  Much smaller in colder climates.

Texture

Dramatic, sculptural, and—thanks to the uniquely large, dark, and glossy foliage, and the enormous flowers—distinctly tropical.

Grown for

the foliage.  The smooth-edged, pointed, oblong, evergreen leaves are often much larger than those of rhododendrons, with the top surface so glossy it appears individually waxed and buffed. 

 

the flowers.  Large cream-white typical magnolia flowers, heavily fragrant, appearing sporadically whenever the weather's warm enough. 

 

the flexibility of culture, which see.

 

its easy-going attitude to pruning and training; see "How to handle it."

 

the erect brown seed pods that extrude, sporadically, large red seeds.  It's interesting at close-range but not especially showy overall.

Flowering season

Warm weather all season long; July through early October in Rhode Island.  In really mild climates, almost year-round.

Culture

Acid soil, full sun to half shade; the trees are much less full in shade but seem to thrive and bloom even so.  Ideally, loose and humus-rich soil, like you'd provide for rhododendrons and woodland gardens.  But magnolias are unusually tolerant of heavy and even poorly-draining soil; as ever, good drainage is more and more essential for Winter hardiness the colder the climate.  They are also surprisingly drought-tolerant, which is one more reason they thrive in Mediterranean climates like Southern California or Italy.  That said, they will still need supplemental watering there to truly prosper.

How to handle it

If heavy snows aren't a problem where you garden, and you're in Zone 7 and up, southern magnolias are a tree to plant and then, pretty much, just leave alone while they do their thing.  Smaller specimens usually transplant better than larger; even transplanting pot-grown specimens can result in temporary leaf-drop.  The trees recover (usually) just fine, but look bedraggled while they're at it. 

 

The fastest and fullest growth is in full sun, but the trees perform acceptably even in fairly deep shade as long as they get at least a few hours of direct sun a day.

 

In colder or snowier climates, protection from the Winter is important.  Plant where buildings or larger evergreens will provide buffering from direct blasts.  The tree recovers quickly from Winter damage to the foliage (by growing new foliage and, eventually shedding the old).  It sprouts from old wood easily, so tip-damage to the branches, at least if it isn't that extensive, just makes the plant fuller.  It can resprout directly from the trunk when called upon, too. 

 

In Zone 6, though, the combination of Winter cold and occasional heavy snow can overwhelm free-standing specimens long before they'd have a chance to put out new growth when the weather warms up.  Consider, instead, growing one as an espalier frame erected against a sheltering wall.  The branches are surprisingly flexible and easy to tie-in to the espalier structure, so provide the extra support needed for the tree to withstand snow-load.  And the sheltering wall helps reduce Winter damage too.  The look—a vertical plane of glossy foliage—is so exciting that magnolias are often espaliered even where Winter hardiness isn't a problem.

 

An additional protection for securely-espaliered plants would be to cover them with wind-baffle fabric, which is the stuff used around tennis courts.  This wouldn't be possible for free-growing plants even if you were willing to get out the ladders and scaffolding to put the fabric in place: The fabric would collect so much snow that the tree underneath it would be crushed.  Espaliered trees, though, have only the long narrow top edge of the espaliered foliage to collect snow; the vertical face, especially if shielded by the fabric, will collect little.

 

Yet another strategy is to plant M. grandiflora 'Bracken's Brown Beauty', which is substantially better at tolerating snow-load, and also a bit hardier. 

Downsides

The trees are untroubled by pests or diseases.  But wet, heavy snow can cause substantial (or even, in my experience, catastrophic) damage because the evergreen leaves, each as big as a banana, don't snap off even under heavy snow load: They take entire branches down with them.  See "How to handle it" for strategies to grow this tree in areas with heavy snow.

 

Regardless of where or how you grow southern magnolias, there's always the hassle of cleaning up the fallen leaves, which straggle to the ground year-round. 

Variants

There are well over a hundred southern magnolia cultivars, differing in hardiness, flower size and fragrance, leaf size and furriness, and mature size.  The tree is so distinctive in overall look, though, that there's little need to grow more than one or two varieties; of course, for Northerners the real challenge is to be able to grow any at all.  Every single thriving specimen is a thrill north of New York City.  

Availability

On-line and, within its hardiness range, at retailers.

Propagation

By cuttings as well as grafting.

Native habitat

Magnolia grandiflora is native to the Southeast United States.  'Edith Bogue' is from Florida; the original was sent to Edith Bogue, in Montclair, NJ. 

 
 
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