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Trees With Flowers Or Fruits - The Magnolias

( Originally Published 1927 )



Four of the ten genera in the magnolia family are represented in North America. Of these, two are trees. All are known by their large, simple, alternate leaves, with margins entire; their showy, solitary, terminal flowers, perfect and with all parts distinct; and their cone-like fruits, compounded of many one- or two-seeded follicles, shingling over each other upon a central spike. The wood is soft and light throughout the family, and the roots are fleshy. The sap is watery and the bark is bitter and aromatic.

The genus magnolia, named by Linnaeus in honor of Pierre Magnol, a French botanist, includes twenty species; twelve are native to eastern and southern. Asia, two to Mexico, and six to eastern North America. They are of peculiar interest to horticulturists and to the general public, because they have the largest flowers of any trees in cultivation. A white blossom from six inches to a foot across is bound to attract attention and admiration when set off by a whorl of lustrous evergreen leaves. The petals of most magnolia blossoms are notably thick and waxy in texture and deliciously fragrant. Last but not least are the cone-like fruits, which flush from pale green to rose as they ripen against the dark, leathery foliage; at maturity their follicles open in a peculiar fashion and hang out their bright red seeds on slender elastic threads. Foliage, flowers, or cones alone would make magnolias superb as ornamental trees. All these qualities combined have given them a preeminent place in every country where ornamental planting is done. North America is fortunate in having so large a number of species that assume tree form.

When you see a magnolia in the North blossoming be-fore the leaves, you may be sure it is an exotic species, and if the flowers are colored you may be equally sure that it is a hybrid between two oriental species, and belongs to the group of which the type is M. Soulangeana. The owner may be a magnolia enthusiast, able to show you on his premises both parents of this interesting and beautiful hybrid.

Yulan Magnolia

Magnolia Yulan

The Yulan magnolia, for centuries a favorite in Japanese gardens, covers itself before the leaves appear with pure white, fragrant flowers, bell-shaped and fully six inches across. In our Eastern gardens it is quite as much at home, and though young trees are oftenest seen, the older specimens are as large as any native magnolia. This is one parent. The other is but a shrub, the purple magnolia, M. obovata, that must be protected against the rigors of our Northern winters. It blooms in May or June, and its purple flowers, with rosy linings, are relatively small and al-most scentless. The children of this parentage get their tints of pink and rose and crimson from this purple magnolia shrub.

Splendid, hardy, fragrant, big-flowered varieties have arisen from this cross. All are small trees, suitable for planting in city yards, where they are decorative through-out the season.

Starry Magnolia M. stellata

The starry magnolia blooms in March or April, covering itself with star-shaped white flowers made of strap-like petals that form a flat whorl instead of a cup. This is the earliest magnolia and wonderfully precocious, blooming when scarcely two feet high.

The Southern states can grow the splendid Campbell's magnolia, which is in its glory in the high mountain valleys of the Himalayas, where it reaches one hundred feet in height. The fragrant flower-cups, from six to ten inches in diameter, shade from pink to crimson. It is rare in cultivation because it is not easy to grow, and northern horticulturists fail utterly to grow it outdoors; but the fact that it is the most beautiful of all exotic species must en-courage its culture in the South, and difficulties will be over-come when the tree's peculiar needs are fully understood.

The Great Laurel Magnolia M. foetida, Sarg.

The great laurel magnolia is oftenest seen in cultivation as a small tree of pyramidal or conical habit, with stiff, ascending branches, bearing a lustrous mass of leathery oval leaves, five to eight inches long, lined with dull green, or with rusty down, persistent until the second spring. When small these magnolia trees are as conventional as the rubber plants in hotel lobbies, whose foliage resembles theirs. But in the forests of Louisiana, where this tree reaches its greatest perfection, it earns the characterization that Sargent gave it, "the most splendid ornamental tree in the American forests." With a trunk four feet thick, and its head lifted from fifty to eighty feet above the ground and with each leaf cluster holding up a great white flower, waxy as a camellia, seven to eight inches across, the tree is indeed superb. William Bartram likened these flowers to great white roses, distinctly visible from a distance of a mile.

The purple heart of the flower, made by a spot of color at the base of each petal, and the overpowering odor, rather sickening as the flowers fade, lure insects to the nectar store at the bottom of the flower-cup. This odor, disagreeable to many people, is the one objection to this flower when brought indoors. A drawback that florists discover is that the slightest bruise of the waxy petals produces a brownish discoloration, which prevents the shipment of these flowers. The splendid foliage, however, travels perfectly, and a new and growing industry is the gathering of magnolia branches in Southern woods for Christmas decoration. These branches are offered in all Northern cities, and this demand threatens the extinction of the tree, which until comparatively recent years has enjoyed immunity because of the worthlessness of its soft wood.

The tree's natural range is from the North Carolina coast to Tampa Bay, and west along the Gulf Coast to Texas and southern Arkansas. As an ornamental tree, it is safely planted in Philadelphia, but its life is precarious farther north. It is widely grown in southern California as a street tree, notably in Pasadena and in parks and gardens for its blossoms, foliage, and fuzzy, horny cones.

The Swamp Bay M. glauca, Linn.

The swamp bay has lustrous, bright green leaves with silvery linings. In Florida and across to Texas and Arkansas it grows into a superb evergreen tree, fifty to seventy-five feet in height. Northward along the Atlantic Coast its growth is stunted as the climate becomes more rigorous, until it reaches Massachusetts and Long Island, where it becomes a many-stemmed shrub, whose beautiful leaves fall in the autumn. On the streets of cities near the New Jersey swamps the flowers of the swamp bay are offered for sale in May. The buds are almost globular, and each one is surrounded by a cluster of new leaves. To spring back these waxy white petals, that are marred by a touch, is criminal; but it is the common practice with boys who hawk these flowers on the streets. Most of the charm is gone from flowers thus defiled by dingy fingers.

The finest flowers are borne on strong young shoots. The florists collect and handle them with extreme care. Much of the swamp land now useless along the Atlantic seaboard could be profitably planted to this magnolia, for the florist trade alone. The flowers bloom slowly through a period of several weeks. The enterprising owner of tracts planted to swamp bay could reap two harvests a year, al-most from the first season : the flowers in spring and the leafy shoots for holiday decorations. In the South the leaves are evergreen.

The Large-leaved Cucumber Tree

M. macrophylla, Michx.

The large-leaved cucumber tree exceeds all other magnolias in the size of its leaves and flowers. In fact, no tree out-side the tropics can match it, for its blades are almost a yard in length. The flowers are great white bowls, sometimes a foot across, made of six white waxy petals, much broader than the three protecting sepals outside. The inner petals have purple spots at the base. The fruits are almost globular, two to three inches long, turning red as they mature, equally showy when the scarlet seeds dangle from the open follicles.

These trees are at home in fertile valleys among the foot-hills of the Alleghanies, from North Carolina to middle Florida, and west to central Arkansas. Their range is not continuous. They occur in scattered groups that have come from seed.

The horticulturist has greatly aided nature in the spread of this tree in this country and in Europe, where its flowers and leaves attract universal attention. The mistake usually made is to plant it in the middle of a lawn where the wind lashes the broad leaves into ribbons before they have reached their full size. Every twig or leaf that touches a petal mars it with a brown bruise. The only way to enjoy one of these remarkable trees is to plant it in the most sheltered situation, where the sunshine will reach it and the breezes will not. Then the silver-lined foliage and the superb white blossoms can come to perfection and the sight is worth going miles to see.

The Cucumber Tree M. acuminate, Linn.

The cucumber tree is the hardiest of our native magnolias, tropical-looking by reason of its heart-shaped leaves, six to ten inches long. Its chosen habitat is rocky uplands, where the fleshy roots can find moist soil. It ranges from western New York to Illinois, Kentucky, and Arkansas, and follows the mountain foothills through Pennsylvania and Tennessee into Alabama and Mississippi.

The flowers are like tulips, and though large can scarcely be seen among the new leaves, because they are all yellowish green in color. The petals are leaf-like and the flowers have no fragrance to make up for their lack of beauty. Imperfect pollination results in distorted, fleshy cones that resemble cucumbers that have twisted and shrunken in spots as they grew. These fruits turn from pink to red as they mature, redeeming their ugly shape by their vivid color as the leaves turn yellow. In September, the scarlet seeds hang out and the wind whips them until they dangle several inches below the fruit. One by one they drop and new cucumber trees come up from this planting.

The wood of the cucumber tree is light, close-textured, weak, and pale brown in color. It has only local use in cabinet-making and for flooring. The tree is far more valuable in horticulture. It is a splendid stock on which to graft less hardy magnolias. It is a superb avenue and shade tree for Northern cities, and in this capacity it is as yet little known. It grows vigorously from seed, and stands transplanting, if care is used that the brittle roots are not mutilated nor dried.

The Umbrella Tree M. tripetala, Linn.

The umbrella tree has an umbrella-like whorl of leaves surrounding the flower whose white cup stands above three recurving white sepals. The whole tree suggests an umbrella, so closely thatched is its dome of thin, bright green leaves.

The stout contorted branches and twigs lack symmetry, from the forking habit. Side twigs strike out at right angles from an erect branch, then turn up into a position parallel with the parent branch, and bear terminal flowers, which induce another branching system the following year. Despite its angularity this is the trimmest and one of the handsomest of our native magnolias, and it has the merit of hardiness even in New England, where it attains large size. Its native range extends from Pennsylvania near the coast, along the Atlantic seaboard, and westward to southern Alabama and Arkansas. It loves swamp borders and the banks of mountain streams, but behaves well in the moderately rich soil of parks and gardens.

The Tulip Tree

Liriodendron tulipifera, Linn.

The tulip tree is a cousin, rather than a sister, to the fore-going magnolias. It stands alone in its genus in America, but has a sister species that grows in the Chinese interior. A tall, stately forest tree, it reached two hundred feet in height, and a trunk diameter of ten feet, in the lower Ohio Valley, when it was covered with virgin forest. This species still holds its own as a valuable lumber tree on mountain slopes of North Carolina and Tennessee. Smaller, but still stately and beautiful, it is found in woods from Vermont to Florida and west to Illinois, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

In Europe the tulip tree has been a favorite since its discovery and exportation by the American colonists. More and more it is coming to be appreciated at home as a lawn and shade tree, for there is no time in the year when it is not full of interest and beauty, and no time in its life when it is not a distinct and beautiful addition to any plantation.

In the dead of winter young tulip trees are singularly straight and symmetrical compared with saplings of other trees. There is usually a grove of them, planted by some older tree that towers overhead, and still holds up its shiny cones, that take months to give up their winged seeds. The close, thick, intricately furrowed bark of the parent tree contrasts sharply with the smooth rind of its branches and the stems of the saplings. Tulip trees are trim as beeches until the trunks are old.

The winter twigs are set with oblong blunt leaf-buds. The terminal one contains the flower, when the tree is old enough to bloom. (See illustration, page 103.) In spring the terminal buds of saplings best show the peculiarity of the tree's vernation. Two green leaves with palms together form a flat bag that encloses the new shoot. Hold this bag up to the light and you see, as a shadow within, a curved petiole and leaf. The bag opens along its edge seam, the leaf-stem straightens, lifting the blade which is folded on the midrib. At the base of the petiole stands a smaller flat green bag. As the leaf grows to maturity the basal palms of its protecting bag shrivel and fall away, leaving the ring scar around the leaf base.

Now the growing shoot has carried up the second bag, which opens and another leaf expands, sheds its leafy stipules, and a third follows. The studies of this unique vernation delight children and grown-ups. It is absolutely unmatched in the world of trees.

The leathery blades of the tulip tree are from four to six inches broad and long, with basal lobes, like those of a maple leaf, and the end chopped off square. Occasionally there is a notch, made by the two end lobes projecting a trifle beyond the midrib. The leaves are singularly free from damage, keeping their dark lustrous beauty through the summer, and turning to clear yellow before they fall.

The winged seeds fall first from the top of the erect cones, the wind whirling them far, because the flat blades are long and the seed-cases light—many of them empty in fact. Far into winter a tulip tree seems to be blossoming, because its bare branches are tipped with the remnants of the seed cones, faded and shining almost white against the dark branches.

Tulip wood is soft and weak, pale brown, and light in weight. It is easily worked and is used locally for houseand boat-building. Wood pulp consumes much of the yearly harvest. It is known as "poplar," whose wood it resembles. Ordinary postal cards are made of it. The bark yields a drug used as a heart stimulant.



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