Plant Profile: Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)

Southern grandeur. The classic Southern tree. The epitome of large plantations. Southern Magnolias. They are adored by virtually all those who grow them and they are the envy of many gardeners who don’t. Their gorgeous evergreen leaves are a favorite for Christmas decorations or any other special occasion that comes along.

Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is native to all of the Deep South states including Texas and its northern range covers parts of Maryland. The ability to grow in such diverse conditions shows that Southern Magnolia is a tough tree. Southern Magnolia needs full sun to do its best, at least in the Mid-Atlantic gardening region. Perhaps in Texas it appreciates a little shade. It isn’t very particular about its soil type, so long as it’s not sitting in standing water. I’ve seen them used in streetscapes with very limited soil and they seem to do fine. In those conditions, they will never be as beautiful as the ones grown in an open area with lots of room to spread their roots, but that’s to be expected.

Southern Magnolia bloom in June and their flowers are simply fantastic. They are the subject of many pictures and paintings, most of which can be found in my Mom’s house…she just loves them. The 6″ to 8″ wide blooms are fragrant but not so much as to be overpowering. They are a vanilla white and persist on the tree for two to three weeks, depending on weather conditions. Here are some pictures of the buds, flowers and the seed pods.

Southern Magnolia
The buds


Southern Magnolia
The blooms


Southern Magnolia
The spent bloom


Southern magnolia
The beginning of the seed pod


southern magnoliaThe main drawback to growing Southern Magnolia is that they shed their leaves…right as the trees are flowering. Their thick, shiny green leaves don’t decompose readily and can’t just be chopped up with your lawnmower. This is one of those chores that require you to break out the rake in June. One way to solve this problem is to leave the full skirt on the tree instead of limbing it up. If you leave the skirt intact to the ground, most of the leaves will fall through the tree and remain as mulch for the tree. If you limb it up, you’ll have Magnolia leaves from one end of your property to the other.

There are many cultivars of Southern Magnolia that are available in the trade. Here are some of the most popular:

  1. Bracken’s Brown Beauty‘ – this variety grows from 30′ to 50′ tall by 15′ to 30′ wide versus 50′ to 80’ tall that the straight species can reach.
  2. Edith Bogue‘ – this selection takes a little longer to flower but it boasts two important characteristics: it’s more cold hardy (to Zone 6) and it has a tight pyramidal form.
  3. Little Gem‘ – if you need to squeeze a Southern Magnolia into a smaller space, ‘Little Gem’ is an option. Topping out at 20′ tall x 10′ wide, this is perfect for those more compact landscapes.


While all of the literature says that Southern Magnolia is only hardy to Zone 7, try pushing it if you have a warm area in your landscape. There are tons of microclimates within an average garden and you should try to utilize them when you can. Have you grown Southern Magnolia in your landscape? Have you pushed it past Zone 7? Leave me a comment below or shoot me an e-mail. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!


Plant Profile: Hinoki False Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’)


Today’s post is about one of my favorite evergreen shrubs/small trees, the Hinoki False Cypress. This plant conjures up memories of my days at Virginia Tech. There used to be one right outside the classroom at the greenhouses and I would admire it as I was going to my Floriculture class. At the time, the plant was no taller than me and it was of considerable age…Hinoki False Cypress is a slow growing but striking specimen in the landscape.

It’s this slow growing tendency that makes this plant ideal in the landscape. Even though the plant tops out at around 6′ tall, its pokey growth rate enables it to be used in the smallest of gardens. It is best used as an accent or backdrop for other plants. Its rich, dark green foliage accentuates lighter colored foliage and blooms…imagine it paired with ‘Pee Wee’ Hydrangea or one of the fall blooming Anemones. Stunning! Another popular use is in the rock garden…the plant has an alpine air to it so it fits perfectly.

This particular Chamaecyparis enjoys a little protection from afternoon sun here in Zone 7. Don’t plant it in full shade or it will get rangy and look more like an awkward teenager than a striking specimen. But a little protection from the blazing hot sun can help keep it from turning brown and crispy around the edges. Hinoki False Cypress also enjoys moist well-drained soil. That doesn’t mean it won’t tolerate less…it just means that if it could pick anywhere in the world to put down its roots, moist well-drained soil would be it. If you have an area that is slow to drain after a rain, select another plant for this area; Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’ will have no parts of standing water.

In my opinion, one of the most attractive features of this small tree is the foliage when viewed up close. Its sprays of flattened foliage are dark green and whirled in appearance. To me, it resembles a miniature stand of conifers that you would see in a conifer forest. Speaking of miniature, Hinoki False Cypress is often used in bonsais due to its slow growth. And considering that it was the Japanese that perfected the art of bonsai, it makes sense that the plant is native to there. Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’ is hardy to Zone 4 so it will breeze right through Mid-Atlantic winters unscathed and look absolutely amazing with a covering of snow in the winter.

There are few pests that enjoy the Hinoki False Cypress. Bagworms can be an issue but they are easily picked off a shrub that only reaches 6′ tall at maturity. As long as it is planted in anything but wet soil, this plant should thrive for years and years in your garden. If you have experience with Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’, leave a comment in the section below or e-mail me at Happy gardening!

December 14, 2011Permalink 48 Comments

Plant Profile: Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis)

G.A. Cooper @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Daabase


Today I thought that we would take a look at Helleborus orientalis, or Lenten Rose. Hellebores are fantastic plants that are hardy to Zone 4, meaning that they can withstand winter temperatures down to -30 degrees Fahrenheit. They are evergreen and bloom during a time of the year that little else will; they begin blooming in December and bloom up until April in Zone 7.

The Lenten Rose obtained its common name from the season in which it blooms. The word Helleborus can be broken down into its Latin roots as “hellin” which means to kill and “bora” which means food. It is true that Hellebores are poisonous so this makes them ideal for areas that have deer problems or pesky voles. They are generally only considered mildly poisonous if they are ingested and thankfully, there are plenty of other greens for me to eat in the winter. I would take care if you have cats or dogs that tend to graze on your plantings. Animals are usually very good at quickly determining if a plant is toxic but I’d hate to think that Sparky would have an upset tummy because of me.

Lenten Roses make great partners to other plants in the shade garden. As you go further north of Zone 7, you can push them into a little more sun but watch for leaves that start to burn. Just as animals have instincts that we don’t, plants will do their darndest to let us know if they are unhappy with their location. Unfortunately for them, they aren’t able to pick up and move if they are getting sunburnt so we have to watch for signs of distress. They enjoy a moist, well-drained soil that is loose and friable. They can certainly make do with much less but if we’re discussing ideal locations for them, a soil with a generous amount of organic matter is the ticket.

Much effort has been invested in the hybridization of Hellebores in recent years as they fetch a fairly hefty price in the garden center. In the Richmond, Virginia area a 3 qt. container will sell for around $12.oo retail. There are many wonderful color variations available now, including pinks, reds, whites, yellows and purples. Pine Knot Farms, located in Clarksville, Virginia has succeeded in breeding Hellebores that go beyond the attractive greenish-white colors that permeate many of the Lenten Rose’s flowers.

helleborus orientalis

The flowers are often freckled and develop into handsome seed pods if left on the plant. It is these seed pods that spring forth the next generation of Lenten Roses. If the plant is happy in its location, you can expect upwards of a hundred new babies the following year. They transplant easily enough if allowed to obtain a little size before moving.

When you’re looking at adding a few new perennials to your shade garden, why not consider the Lenten Rose? It is a workhorse in the garden that will have all of your friends, gardeners or not, asking what is the plant that is blooming in the snow outside your door. And you can kindly reply that it is a killing plant, better known as a Lenten Rose.

If there are other plants that you would like to see profiled here, please e-mail me at and let me know.

November 18, 2011Permalink Leave a comment