Unlike the southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), the umbrella magnolia's flowers are less than showy nor are they as beautifully scented.
Umbrella magnolia is an attractive deciduous tree with large white flowers and large diamond-shaped leaves that are crowded near the branch tips. The trunk is straight, sometimes with multiple stems, and the crown is open and spreading. The bark is smooth and gray. Umbrella magnolia is commonly 30-40' tall with a crown spread of 20-30 ft (6-9 m). The leaves are 8-16 in (20-40 cm) long, and usually widest nearer the tip. There are no earlike lobes at the base of the leaf as there are in Fraser magnolia and pyramid magnolia which are otherwise rather similar. The leaves are clustered and spread out from the branch tips like an umbrella. All magnolias have perfect flowers (male and female parts are both present). Umbrella magnolia flowers are bowl shaped, pale yellow to cream colored, 6-10 in (15-25 cm) across with 9-12 perianth segments (petal-like structures). They have a disagreeable odor up close, but seem pleasantly fragrant from a distance. The fruit is a rose-colored 4-6 in (10-15 cm) conelike aggregate of fleshy two-seeded red follicles. At maturity, the red seeds hang from the "cone" by fragile threadlike filaments. The flowers open after the leaves, typically in April, May and June, and the fruits ripen in August and September. There are a handful of cultivars selected for the ornamental landscape.
Umbrella magnolia grows naturally in scattered localities within the hardwood forests of the southern Appalachians, from Pennsylvania and West Virginia through Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and on through the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Georgia, Alabama and NW South Carolina. There are isolated populations in Arkansas and Mississippi. Umbrella magnolia is especially common in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. It grows on rich, moist, well drained soils, often along creeks. These are subcanopy trees, often growing in association with tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and sycamore (Platanus occidentalis).
Umbrella magnolia is a fast-growing little tree and it seems to do best in acidic soils. Light: Partial shade to fairly deep shade. Moisture: Umbrella magnolia is not tolerant of extended droughts. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5-8. Propagation: Propagate by seed or with greenwood cuttings in early summer. Seeds should be cleaned of the fleshy pulp and sown outdoors while still fresh. Germination is sporadic over a year or two and many seeds are infertile due to incomplete pollination.
Umbrella magnolia is an attractive ornamental, but infrequently found in cultivation. Umbrella magnolia is best suited to a semi-shady woodland border or as a lawn tree. The large paperlike leaves turn a rich brown in fall. Umbrella magnolia has little commercial value. The light-colored wood is soft and weak.
There are some 125 species of Magnolia occurring in eastern North America, South America and eastern Asia. The magnolias are among the most ancient of the flowering plants, with a fossil record dating back more than 100 million years. Some are evergreen (southern magnolia, M. grandiflora, for example) and others are deciduous. North American deciduous magnolias bloom after the leaves come out; many of the the Asian species bloom in early spring on naked twigs (star magnolia, M. stellata, for example.) Magnolia flowers are pollinated by beetles.