One of the plants I’m really marveling over right now is the Ashe magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla ssp. ashei). I have half a dozen in bloom in my backyard, and I must admit I feel almost tortured by their beauty these spring days. You see, I can’t stop smelling the flowers and trying to take pictures of them. And I can’t stop scheming to buy more of these great little trees.
A subspecies of the much larger big-leaf magnolia, Ashe magnolia is a small deciduous understory tree with huge leaves and flowers. It’s a rare plant (endangered, actually), with a natural range that is limited to just 10 counties in the Florida Panhandle, including my own county, Gadsden. My favorite place to see it in the wild is Torreya State Park in Liberty County. The park is located on the east bank of the Apalachicola River, and walking along the high bluffs overlooking the river is almost like hiking in the mountains. It’s a nice surprise to be ambling along in those big woods and to come across the large, soft familiar leaves of an Ashe magnolia, a plant I grow in my own yard. It’s just so neat to see it in its natural habitat.
Ashe magnolia doesn’t get much taller than about 20 feet, and lots of times it’s just as wide as it is tall. To me, the habit is almost bonsai-like, the branches becoming full of interesting bends and turns as they reach for the sun. The leaves can grow as long as 2 feet (they kind of remind me of banana leaves), and they might be as much as a foot wide at their widest point.
Lavish, creamy flowers open in April and have the most irresistible lemony scent. The thick, leathery petals make me think of kid gloves. If you peer inside the cup of the flower, you’ll see purple accents at the bases of the petals . . . and beetles, lots of beetles. That’s because the flowers are very primitive (magnolias are some of the oldest plants on earth), and though they don’t produce nectar, they do produce plenty of high-protein pollen, which beetles like to eat. So beetles, not bees or butterflies, pollinate Ashe magnolias.
Rosy maraca-shaped fruits contain dozens of fleshy, bright red seeds. The seeds ripen in early fall and provide high-energy food to birds migrating south for the winter. In October or November the leaves turn yellow and drop off, but the pale, crooked branches and giant leaf buds provide winter interest. (Sometimes I think the bare branches look like elaborate candelabras and the buds look like flames.)
Ashe magnolia is pretty easy to grow. Just plant it in partial shade in rich, moist, acidic, well-drained soil. Some people say you can grow it in full sun, but in my experience this hasn’t been the case. You’ll need to water new trees in summer and during dry spells, until they get established.
Oh, and you won’t have to wait long for flowers. Ashe magnolia will bloom when it’s just a few years old. In fact, Rob and I have had trees that were only waist-high when they bloomed, which makes the flowers very easy to see and very easy to photograph . . . obsessively.
|My biggest Ashe magnolia. I planted this one about eight years ago.|
|The house as seen between two enormous Ashe magnolia leaves|
|A new flower opening|