The Plant Native

Native Magnolias: A Beginner’s Guide

Magnolias are iconic trees. They are known for their gorgeous flowers alongside glossy, often evergreen leaves. There are 200+ magnolia species worldwide; eight magnolia species are native to the United States and Canada (including some of the most gorgeous ones!) Learn how to plant and care for them, and how to spot these gorgeous native trees.

A photograph of a large Southern Magnolia tree along a road.
The glossy Southern Magnolia leaves look dipped in nail polish

The eight native North American magnolias are a beloved part of American storytelling and iconography, mentioned in Gone With the Wind alongside award-winning stories by Zora Neale Hurston and Ibram X. Kendi. In this guide, we’ll meet these eight unique native magnolia species, explore their distinguishing features, native ranges, tips for finding and caring for them, as well as the challenges you may encounter. By the end, you’ll be inspired to plant a few native magnolias in your garden.

First, a little background on their name. You may be wondering…

Where did the name Magnolia come from?

Magnolia sounds beautiful, and a little French, right? Here’s why:

These remarkable trees’ common and Latin names come from the French botanist Pierre Magnol, who worked in the 17th century. Magnol never visited North America but his students did, and they named this tree after their teacher. (Sadly, many long-dead Europeans offer the Latin naming inspiration for some of North America’s most beautiful native plants—Black-Eyed Susans is another example.)

All 200+ magnolia trees’ Latin names start with their genus name Magnolia, followed by their species (scroll on to meet all eight native options.)

Where are the other species of magnolia from?

The majority of magnolia species are native to Asia, with some also found in Central and South America and the West Indies.

Some non-native magnolias that might be living in your landscape include:

It’s strange why these non-native species have crept into American landscaping when North American magnolias have long been considered the most beautiful magnolias. North American magnolias have been exported for landscaping almost as soon as ships could cross the Atlantic.

This is why…

You’ll find North America’s magnolias all over Europe

As early as the 16th century, European colonists were sending North American magnolia seeds and seedlings back across the Atlantic for European gardens. Today, you’ll encounter huge, beautiful North American magnolias in many celebrated gardens, including Kew Gardens in London and parks in Lombardy, Italy

Now that we know a little about the history, let’s meet the eight native species of magnolia. Visit each species’ plant profile to learn more about planting and caring for these incredible native trees.

Eight native species of magnolia

We separated the native magnolias into two groups: Evergreen/Semi-Evergreen and Deciduous (meaning they lose their leaves in the winter)

Native Evergreen / semi-Evergreen Magnolias

1.

Southern Magnolia

MAGNOLIA GRANDIFLORA

When you close your eyes and think of a Magnolia, you are probably imagining (and smelling!) a Southern. The dark, glossy evergreen leaves are paired with huge ivory blooms. Their flowers smell amazing. This is an iconic tree prized across the globe and hails from North America.

A white Sweetbay Magnolia flower blooming, photographed growing on a branch of the Sweetbay Magnolia tree.
2.

Sweetbay Magnolia 

MAGNOLIA VIRGINIANA

Sweetbays are native from Massachusetts down to Florida. Why this tree is often overlooked in landscaping is a mystery! Their semi-evergreen leaves often have a silvery underside, along with a lighter, more airy canopy. A perfect magnolia to plant if you live on the East Coast.

Native Deciduous Magnolias

‘Deciduous’ means these trees loose their leaves in the cooler months

3.

Cucumber Magnolia 

MAGNOLIA ACUMINATA

Yellow Cucumber Magnolia

MAGNOLIA ACUMINATA subsp. subcordata

Both Cucumber Magnolias are named for the shape of their cucumber-esque fruits. It’s rare to find a tree that makes yellow flowers, so these really stand out. Cucumber Magnolias are the only magnolia native to Canada. Both Cucumber Magnolias are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the fall.

4.

Mountain Magnolia

MAGNOLIA FRASERI

This is a petite Magnolia! Mountain Magnolias (also called Fraser Magnolias) stay small compared to their cousins, topping out around 40 feet. It is found in the Appalachian mountains region and prefers moist soils, especially along streams.

5.

Pyramid Magnolia

Magnolia fraseri var. pyramidata

The Pyramid Magnolia shares a lot of growing similarities with the Mountain Magnolia (it also likes moist areas) but its native range is a little more coastal compared to the Mountain Magnolia.

6.

Bigleaf Magnolia 

MAGNOLIA MACROPHYLLA

A Bigleaf’s flowers are huge: sometimes up to two feet across. Its leaves are also enormous: up to THIRTY INCHES long. Because its leaves are so large, this tree takes up space, making it challenging for landscaping. But if you have the space, plant a few for a stunning landscape.

7.

Umbrella Magnolia 

MAGNOLIA tripetala

Umbrella Magnolias also have HUGE leaves—up to 1-2 foot apiece. They are native from Massachusetts down to Arkansas and max out around 30-50 feet. The name ‘umbrella’ is inspired by the way their huge leaves cluster around the ends of their branches. (The picture here shows this, alongside their enormous leaves!)

While their leaves are large, their flowers are small—only 4 inches across. But the grandness of the leaves is what Umbrella Magnolias are known for. These trees are harder to find in nurseries—stick to specialty nurseries to find one.

8.

Ashe Magnolia

Magnolia macrophylla subsp. ashei

This is a rare, endangered tree native to the Florida Panhandle. While its native range is tiny, Ashe Magnolia is successfully used in landscaping as far north as Pennsylvania. The ‘national champion’ Ashe Magnolia (or the largest of this species in existence) is located at the Henry Botanic Garden in Gladwyne, PA.

Ashe Magnolias are smaller trees, reaching around 30 feet. Their flowers have lovely pink details. Although they lose their leaves in the winter, their branches are known for their sculptural shapes, leaving lots to admire in the cooler months. Seek them out from specialty nurseries.

Now that you’ve met all eight, you may be looking around your landscape or garden center and wondering…

What’s the benefit of planting native magnolias over non-native?

The benefits for planting native over non-native magnolias are huge. Some clear benefits include:

Non-Native Magnolias

  • To keep blooms going, non-native magnolias can require fertilizing and watering
  • Many cannot tolerate freezing temperatures (they can die or lose branches)
  • Non-native plants are not host plants for native butterflies, birds, and wildlife 

Native Magnolias

Other native, flowering trees and shrubs

If you’re interested in other flowering native trees and shrubs, there are lots to pick from. Favorite flowering trees like Redbud, Tulip Poplars, Southern Catalpa, and Pawpaws are gorgeous, alongside flowering shrubs like Oakleaf Hydrangea, Sweetshrub, Mountain Laurel, and Azaleas.

Flowering shrubs & trees
buttonbush-butterfly-plant-native-gardening

Buttonbush

#image_title

Fringe Tree

mountain-laurel-native-shrub-flower

Mountain Laurel

#image_title

Pawpaw Tree

redbud-tree-in-bloom-native-tree

Redbud

#image_title

Southern Catalpa

Want front yard inspiration?

Magnolias are a great choice. Also check out our Best Native Trees for Front Yards article for more native tree-planting ideas.

Congratulations, you’ve met all the North American native magnolias! These trees have been prized for centuries for their beauty and they are ready to flourish in your yard. With various species to choose from, such as the Cucumber Magnolias, Southern Magnolia, and Sweetbay Magnolia, you’ll find the perfect fit for your region and gardening goals. Visit local nurseries, explore the options, and bring their gorgeousness into your own yard. 

What should you plant with your magnolias (besides more magnolias?) Find your inspiration:

UPDATED —
03/08/2024
Popular FAQs
native-garden-with-obedient-plant-pairing-black-eyed-susans

Lawns vs. Native Gardens — What’s easier?

Save yourself hours of time
monarch-butterfly-on-a-common-milkweed-plant

Native Host Plants for Butterflies

Help the butterflies!
A Southern Magnolia tree's evergreen leaves are shown with small white flowers in bloom.

Native Magnolias: A Beginner’s Guide

Meet all eight
Heuchera 'Peach Flambé' by Acabashi

What is a cultivar?

And why does it matter?