I planted three bigleaf magnolias or cowcumbers (Magnolia macrophylla) over 20 years ago.
This magnolia is a shade loving understory tree. I purchased three gallon sized plants and sited them beneath the 100 foot white oak in my back yard.
The magnolias are clearly visible from my deck and for these 20+ years I have admired their giant leaves. They are bright green and up to 3 feet long.
That’s 36 inches long in case you are thinking that I made a typo. On breezy days they undulate to reveal pale undersides.
I was happy with the foliage display but the years rolled by and my trees did not flower.
And while the foliage is quite spectacular, the flower are stunning as well. They are cup shaped and about a foot across. They are usually tinted pink or purple toward the center and are intensely fragrant.
Tiny beetle pollinators are drawn by the scent. They bumble around in the flower intoxicated by the aroma and abundance of pollen and nectar. Due to their clumsy revelling, a fruit forms that first resembles a cucumber and later a red seeded cone.
Since I know about plant propagation, I was pretty sure that I was getting no flowers because the trees were seed grown. Seedlings of woody plants have to grow for many years before they begin to accumulate flowering hormones. Whereas a cutting will usually have some of the hormone from the parent plant to jump start the process and will flower much earlier in life.
Even though I knew the reason, I was beginning to be impatient after 20 years. Finally this year, all three of the cowcumbers bore a full canopy of flowers.
Needles to say, I am ecstatic.
It reminds me of my youth. In college I studied Magnolia macrophylla in my Plant Materials class. My teacher, Lester Estes, had shown us a small 6′ specimen on the Mississippi State University Campus. He told us that the tree would get over 50 feet tall and described the bold fragrant flowers. Soon after, I went camping with a pack of my plant pals in Northern Alabama at Bankhead National Forest. It was spring and the most wonderful scent permeated the air. We all wandered around following our noses and inhaling the aroma. Finally someone looked up at a smooth barked behemoth tree with giant leaves and said “Wait a minute – is that a …?” “Bigleaf Magnolia” we all chorused.
So now, my own trees, which have not quite attained behemoth status, are in bloom in my own back yard. The scent is intoxicating but the time travel back to my youth is priceless.