1071 Magnolia macrophylla subsp. asheiCommon Names: Ashe magnolia, Ashe's magnolia, big leaf magnolia Family: Magnoliaceae (magnolia Family)
Ashe magnolia is an understory shrub or small tree with huge leaves and huge flowers. Magnolia macrophylla (there are two subspecies) has the largest leaves and the largest flowers of any North American tree. Ashe magnolia has deciduous leaves that are 12-24 in (30-60 cm) long and 6-12 in (15-30 cm) across at their widest point. The saucer shaped flowers are 10-12 in (25-30 cm) across and sweetly fragrant. They are creamy white with purplish stains at the bases of the nine petals. Flowers begin blooming when the leaves are about half grown and continue for several weeks. The fruits are borne in aggregates (look like cones) that are a beautiful shade of pink-purple. As befits a tree with huge leaves, the winter buds are amazingly large (up to 3 in or 7.5 cm long) and actually quite attractive.
Ashe magnolia grows in the shade and its habit (form) is awkwardly sprawling as it reaches for any shaft of sunlight that can squeeze through the forest canopy. Specimens in their native habitat are often short with crooked and wide reaching branches. Individual branches often die when their ray of sun disappears, and new shoots are constantly forming behind the dead wood. Ashe magnolias rarely exceed 20 ft (6 m) in height, but may stretch just as much or more horizontally. The former National Champion Ashe magnolia at Torreya State Park in Liberty County, Florida, died recently. It was in the open and about 53 ft (16 m) tall. A cultivated specimen in Pennsylvania is about the same size and now holds the National Champion title. (Pennsylvania! There's no justice!)
Magnolia macrophylla subsp. ashei is endemic to eight counties in the Florida Panhandle. (In biology, endemic means "restricted to"; that is, it occurs there and nowhere else. The word has a different meaning in epidemiology, where endemic means "prevalent in" or merely "occurring there.") Within its limited geographic range, Ashe magnolia has a spotty distribution in mixed hardwood forests, on ravine slopes, steepheads and bluffs.
The nominate subspecies, M. macrophylla. subsp. macrophylla (bigleaf magnolia), also has a spotty distribution in mixed hardwood forests, but within a much wider geographic range on the Piedmont and mountains of the southeastern U.S. Bigleaf magnolia is known from rich hardwood or mixed hardwood and pine forests in OH, KY, TN, NC, SC, GA, AL, MS, LA, and AR.
CultureLight: In its natural habitat, Ashe magnolia grows in the shade of larger trees. However it grows taller and straighter when it finds itself in full sun. Moisture: Ashe magnolia likes a rich, moist, well drained soil with plenty of organic matter and regular watering. Hardiness: USDA Zones 6 - 9. Ashe magnolia occurs naturally only in USDA zones 8A and 8B. We believe it would do well in zone 9, and it has been successfully cultivated as far north as zone 6. Propagation: Nurseries have reported the seeds are very difficult to germinate. One reason usually given is they were not fertile to begin with because they did not get pollinated. Most magnolia seeds can be sown in fall when they are fresh, but only after the fleshy pulp has been removed because it contains germination inhibitors. Fall-sown seeds will germinate the following spring if they germinate at all. Greenwood cuttings can be rooted in early summer.
I planted my Ashe magnolia in nearly full shade under two large, wide reaching live oaks (Quercus virginiana), and it grew like a typical Ashe magnolia, stretching and leaning as much laterally as upward. Then, within six months of each other, both live oaks (having reached a little too far) crashed to the ground. Now in full sun all day, the magnolia has become a different plant! It is developing a full, symmetrical habit with shorter branches and more of them. More flowers, too. I expect it will begin to grow more like a normal tree with a straight bole and a rounded crown.
Ashe magnolias begin flowering when just 3 ft (1 m) tall; seedlings flower in just four years. Available from native nurseries in northern Florida, the Ashe magnolia makes an outstanding specimen in a shady woodscape. And a real conversation starter, too. Ashe magnolia is listed as an Endangered Species, and cannot be collected from the wild without the landowner's permission. (Note that Endangered plants do not get the same protection as Endangered animals which cannot be collected at all without an Endangered Species permit from the government. (Try getting one!)
The conspecific bigleaf magnolia (M. macrophylla subsp. macrophylla) is more of a typical forest tree. It is upright and commonly grows up to 50 ft (15 m) tall with a straight trunk up to almost 2 ft (60 cm) in diameter. The National Champion, in Kentucky, is 108 ft (32 m) tall. The leaves and flowers are larger, too. The leaves to 3 ft (1 m) in length, and the flowers often more than a foot (30 cm) across.
Steve Christman 3/3/08