Monday, March 9, 2009

Cucumber Tree Magnolia

Magnolia macrophylla known by the common names of Bigleaf Magnolia and cucumber tree was first shown to me at an early age by my father while we were near a creek one summers day. My father wanted me to know something was indeed special about the tree, however it was several years later that I realized what he was talking about.

The Bigleaf Magnolia was discovered in the wild in what is now Gaston county here in North Carolina by French naturalist and plant explorer Andre Michaux in 1789. It is listed now present in 13 states by the USDA and only found in 5 counties in North Carolina. It is found as an understory tree although it can reach heights up to 50 feet tall mostly near water sources such as creeks and streams. It is listed as imperiled in North Carolina and is listed as endangered in the wild in a few of the states it is known to be present.

The Bigleaf Magnolias title is no small matter. It carries the largest simple leaf and the largest bloom of any tree on the North American continent(did everyone get that). The leaves are between 18 and 36 inches long and generally between 9 to 12 inches wide. The flowers are 6 to 14 inches across. It is becoming rare to see them and that is one reason I had forgotten about them for a while. This past summer while nature walking my brother and I along with a friend noticed about 3 specimens larger than 30 feet tall as well as about a dozen smaller trees of assorted sizes in a very isolated area of Northern Iredell County. We found out later that the future of these trees may be in danger because of a land settlement between two family members. I carefully scoped out possible seed pods on the trees to collect seeds when ripe but when the time came the seed just did not make at all in a very productive seed year for almost everything else. After panicking that the lineage of these trees would be lost I contacted Donna Riddle a horticulture instructor at nearby Wilkes Community College. Wilkes Community College has been able through a grant to put in a plant tissue culture lab. Basically without getting too technical they take dormant leaf buds and with a solution of hormones and growth regulators you can produce new plants. This propagation technique has been invaluable for nurseries to get new plant varieties on the market quickly without using up too much plant material in the process. This of course can also be used to keep endangered or rare plant species going. Just this morning Donna came down to meet us and collected the material she needed to see if this propagation type will work on these trees. We will update this story later when Donna notifies me of her progress and success. One other reason that I wanted to preserve the lineage of these Magnolias is that the land on which they reside was part of an original land grant in the late 1770s to one of our families ancestors. So today and if Donna reads this I am happy that we are trying, trying to save not only a part of my families heritage but our nations as well. The picture is of one of the trees in which material for tissue culture propagation was collected. The trees also have very interesting bark as well. We will update this and share pictures of the leaves and blooms this summer.


  1. Kevin,

    I have seen this tree with my friend Will Cook in a park inside of old Chapel Hill. Pretty cool tree.

  2. I just saw one of these out on a drive in Armstrong County, PA. I'd never seen one before. The leaves and flowers jumped right out at me. They are beautiful. The smell isn't the greatest though. :)

  3. I really hope someone can help:
    my mum has just passed away. she has a magnolia tree in her garden which she loved. problem is, we have to hand keys back to her rented house in a few days and i want to take cutting of magnolia. i have NO plant tissue experience....i am trawling the web for advice and dont know what to do. HELP!

  4. Incredibe story Kevin and I hope it's a success. Kudos to you for making this effort to save it.

    You write wonderfully and my heart is with you on this. If I've seen this tree, I didn't know it.