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Magnolias: A force of nature

By By Gail Barton / horticulture columnist
June 6, 2004
Stop! take a deep breath. If you're lucky, you'll inhale the enticing aroma of magnolia flowers.
Here in Meridian, we're at the cusp of the magnolia flowering season. The fragrance is wafting through almost every neighborhood, mingling with the musky scent of privet and Japanese honeysuckle.
Everyone is familiar with our state flower, the Southern magnolia. Southern magnolia can be found in wooded areas around Meridian, but it is also frequently planted in landscapes. Two of the Southern magnolia's cousins are less commonly used in landscaping but can be seen blooming in natural areas and along roadsides around Meridian now.
Magnolia's cousins
The bigleaf magnolia or cowcumber is found in steep wooded ravines. Cowcumber has huge leaves averaging a yard long. It also has the largest flowers of the three magnolias. I've seen flowers almost a foot wide. Generally these lovely ivory blossoms have some purple markings.
Cowcumber is abundant in the ravines at Bonita Lakes along the Highway 45 bypass. It can also be seen, along with the other two magnolias, blooming now at Highland Park near the baseball field.
The Sweetbay magnolia is usually found in wet areas along the edges of creeks or swamps. Like many other swamp residents, Sweetbay adapts well to an average garden soil and can be planted in landscaped areas. European settlers thought Sweetbay had great potential as a landscape plant. In 1688, the Sweetbay was the first native American magnolia to be introduced into Europe.
Sweetbay has diminutive flowers averaging 3 inches across. The flowers are small but are usually borne in large numbers. All three of these magnolia cousins have intensely fragrant flowers. Sweetbay is especially enticing because it carries a hint of lemon.
Strong scent
Early in the morning, and in early evening, the magnolia flower scent is especially strong. After work my husband and I often sit on the deck. We've noticed that right around 6:30 p.m., the scent of the Sweetbays moves from the swampy area nearby and fills the air with its intoxicating aroma.
The only reason any flower releases such a strong scent is in order to beckon a pollinator.
They say that magnolias are the oldest flowering plants. They have been found in fossils dated at 100 million years old. During their entire time on this earth, magnolia flowers have been releasing this enticing scent to attract beetles. The scent is strongest in early evening to attract beetles just emerging for a nightly prowl.
The magnolia flower is perfectly designed for beetle pollination. It is large, light colored and cup shaped. The beetle that pollinates magnolias is called a pollen beetle or sap beetle. It is tiny usually less than1⁄2 inch long with a flattened oval body.
Sap beetles feed on pollen and magnolia flowers are full of it. Magnolia flowers have no nectar. They attract beetles by emitting fragrant sugary secretions during the cool parts of the day. The beetle responds to the scent then bumbles around in a flower feeding on the pollen.
During this feast, the beetle becomes covered with the pollen. When she moves on to another flower, the pollen is transferred with her.
Take a deep breath
I suggest that, right now, all good and loyal Mississippians should sit outdoors around 6:30 in the evening to experience this force of nature which is our state flower.
As you sit and inhale the delicious aroma, remember that over your head in the magnolia canopy, tiny beetles are crawling all over the flowers.
They are bumbling around seeking as much tasty pollen as possible. They are starting a process that will end when the flowers mature into cone-like fruit full of red pulp-covered seed.
Gail Barton is coordinator of the Horticulture Technology Program at Meridian Community College.