The Plant Native

Southern Magnolia

Highlights

When you close your eyes and think of a magnolia tree, you’re probably imagining a Southern Magnolia. These trees have dark green, glossy leaves with a pale green or red underside. In the spring and summer, they cover themselves in ivory blooms with yellow centers—the classic flowers associated with a magnolia tree. After the flowers comes a red, cone-shaped fruit. They are evergreen, so they look this good year-round. Southern Magnolias are native from Pennsylvania down to Florida, and west to Texas. A showstopper for any yard or park.

Sun – Part Sun
60-100′ tall tall!
Evergreen
Magnolia grandiflora

This can be your yard!

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native Southern Magnolias

Table of Contents

Welcome to the world of Southern Magnolias (who also go by their Latin name Magnolia grandiflora). This magnificent native tree has been celebrated for its black-tie elegance and gorgeous-smelling flowers for centuries. Southern Magnolias are one of the eight magnolias native to North America (here’s a list of the other native magnolias.) In this article, we will explore how Magnolia grandiflora changes throughout the seasons, share planting tips, and celebrate this incredible native tree.

The benefits of planting a native Southern Magnolia

Southern Magnolia is a native tree, meaning its been growing in its southern home area for thousands of years. Every hurricane, drought, season, or flood they have lived through; they are built to thrive in your yard! There are so many reasons to plant native plants and trees like Southern Magnolia in our yards and parks:

  • Native trees and plants are the preferred food and homes of pollinators, butterflies, and songbirds 
  • Native trees are made to thrive in their home area’s weather: once they are established, all they need is rain (compare this to lawns, which may need watering 3x a week!)
  • Native trees and plants are gorgeous! You can have a carefree and beautiful yard with way less work and water while supporting butterflies, pollinators, and songbirds
A Southern Magnolia tree's evergreen leaves are shown with small white flowers in bloom.
The glossiest, most dramatic leaves!

Why is it called a magnolia?

The name ‘magnolia’ comes from the French botanist Pierre Magnol, who was the director of botanical gardens in Montpellier, France in the 1600s. We’ve discussed in many articles how the names of North American native plants are often named after long-dead European botanists. It’s a bummer to find out that so many of our most beautiful native plants and trees get names from those who admired them from across an ocean.

Southern Magnolias have a few other common names (common names are names that generations before have given plants) including Bull Bay, Large-flowered Magnolia, and Big Laurel.

A photograph of a large Southern Magnolia tree along a road.
Southern Magnolias can be tall trees
A map showing the native range of the Southern Magnolia, from the USDA Plants Database.
Southern Magnolias have a huge native range! Map from the USDA

What is the native range of Southern Magnolia?

The native range for Southern Magnolias extends from Pennsylvania down to Florida, and west to Texas. Because of climate change (and thanks to some resilient cultivars), you may now find Southern Magnolias in some Northeast nurseries.

How to grow Southern Magnolias

Remember—Southern Magnolias have planted themselves with no human intervention for thousands of years. With a few things in mind, planting these trees is a breeze. Here’s what to remember:

Southern Magnolias are big trees

A Southern Magnolia can grow up to 60 to 100 feet tall, with a width of 50 feet. When planting them, ensure they have enough space to grow over decades.

These trees like to be near water

If you have an area that is near water, that is a perfect spot for a Southern Magnolia. In nature, Southern Magnolias are found near waterways like lakes, swamps, and rivers.

If you don’t have a waterway handy, make sure you plant near a place that gets consistent moisture. This could be as simple as paying attention to where the water collects in your yard after a rainstorm.

These trees do not like the cold

Southern Magnolias do not like cold, frosty temperatures. They need moderate winter temperatures to thrive, making planting them in the Northeast challenging. However, because of climate change, these trees can now be seen thriving in the Mid-Atlantic states. On average, Southern Magnolias need 65% of the days (~240) to be frost-free.

But frosts and cold weather can happen, even in the warmest Southern climates. Baby seedling Southern Magnolias have the hardest time recovering from the occasional frost but an established, large Southern Magnolia can weather occasional cold. When an adult Southern Magnolia experiences a frost, you’ll notice some leaves will have dark splotches or darken (basically, this is them getting freezer burn.) Some leaves will probably fall. Don’t worry—in the spring new leaves will come.

A white Sweetbay Magnolia flower blooming, photographed growing on a branch of the Sweetbay Magnolia tree.
Sweetbay Magnolias are native all the way to Massachusetts!

If you’re worried about the cold…

A better magnolia for the Midwest or Northeast is the Sweetbay

If you live in the Northeast or Midwest and want to plant a magnolia, plant a Sweetbay Magnolia, which are native from Massachusetts to Florida, and west to Texas.

Southern Magnolia cultivars

The Southern Magnolia has been beloved for hundreds of years, so it’s not surprising that there are 40+ cultivar variations available today. (A cultivar stands for Cultivated Variety or a plant that has been curated by humans—here’s a quick cultivar overview). There are Southern Magnolia cultivars that have smaller flowers, or grow faster, or have different colored leaves than their native counterparts. Here are a few you might find at your local nursery:

  • Southern Magnolia ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ has (as you can guess!) leaves with brown undersides
  • Southern Magnolia ‘Edith Bogue’ has been cultivated to have strong branches, to better withstand occasional snow
  • Southern Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ is a more diminutive version; it grows to 30 feet tall and has smaller flowers
Native vs. cultivar

Plant true native plants whenever possible. Cultivars (short for CULTivated VARieties) are selected and made by humans and do not offer the same benefits to bugs, birds, and animals that native plants do. 

A few challenges to mention about Southern Magnolias

One thing to note, as you walk luxuriously around your yard, smelling the glorious Southern Magnolia blossoms: their leaves drop and they can cast deep shade underneath their canopy.

If you plan to have grass up to the tree trunk, it is best to re-evaluate and pivot to planting a shade garden underneath. But honestly, that native shade garden is going to look 30000x better than a lawn. And a native shade garden can handle having dropped leaves turn into soil (as happens in nature), so less work for you!

What to plant with a Southern Magnolia

There are so many native plants that look incredible alongside Southern Magnolias and can handle some of the shade they bring. Favorites include:

Native shrubs + trees
flame-azalea-native-plant-shrub

Azalea

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Carolina Silverbell

rosebay-rhododendron-native-shrub-flowering

Rhododendron

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Southern Catalpa

Native flowers

Looking for some more garden inspiration on what to pair with your Southern Magnolia? Don’t forget to read our Best Native Plants for Southern Gardens guide, Best Native Trees for Front Yards, and our guide for planting a hummingbird garden. Or, if you want to meet other native magnolias, head on over to our Native Magnolia Guide.

Now you’re ready to bring the beauty of a Southern Magnolia to your backyard! Planting this remarkable tree will transform your outdoor space and look amazing year-round, for years to come. Don’t worry if you’re new to gardening! Planting trees is easy and returns the effort with shade, privacy, and a welcoming habitat for birds and pollinators. Happy planting!

UPDATED —
04/01/2024
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