Southern magnolia takes the stage in winter

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, December 5, 2018

By Patricia R. Drackett, Director and Assistant Extension Professor of Landscape Architecture
The Crosby Arboretum, Mississippi State University Extension Service

Don’t think that just because winter is coming a walk at the Crosby Arboretum will now be boring! There is something along our pathways to capture your interest, no matter the time of year. Last week, it was the eruption of creamy strap-shaped blooms on the witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) tree near the Visitor Center.

Witch hazel is related to the poplar ornamental shrub called Chinese witch hazel or purple Loropetalum (its Latin genus).  Some years when the Lorapetalum blooms in the spring in our area landscapes, I have to do a double-take because some varieties will flower so heavily they can be mistaken at first glance for azaleas!

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While the native “common” witch hazel sports blooms which are certainly not as vibrantly colored as the fuschia blooms of purple Loropetalum, it is still an incredibly striking sight because in late November or early December you would not expect to see a flowering tree. Against a blue sky, the creamy yellow flowers and rusty-colored, persistent leaves can be breathtakingly spectacular.

I’ve seen witch hazel growing on the sandy creek banks at the Arboretum’s Hillside Bog Natural Area in Hancock County in the understory forest.  One identifying characteristic is that the leaves have an inequilateral base. This means that the leaf, if it is folded in half, will be asymmetrical at the bottom.

As the garden’s deciduous trees continue to shed their leaves, plants such as the witch hazel and evergreen trees begin to command attention. No longer blending into the forest, trees such as Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) become much more noticeable in the landscape.

In the forest, a mature magnolia often has limbs that will be full to the ground, making it easy to climb or offer a shelter to children. Having once been a child that enjoyed these qualities, it can be sad to see magnolias in lawn areas with their lower limbs removed, and a trunk that is bumpy with limb scars. One may argue that such casualties are necessary in order to pass a lawn mower underneath, but I’ll counter that a full specimen with limbs to the ground (or turf) is much more visually pleasing than one that has been pruned up. Lower limbs also hide some of the continually shed large, leathery leaves inside the tree’s “skirts”.

Children who visit the Arboretum are usually familiar with the Southern magnolia, and often know that it is the state tree of Mississippi, and it would not be an easy job to find someone unfamiliar with the beautiful flowers of this traditional southern tree. The large pods with bright red seeds are easily spotted on the forest floor, and are an important food for birds such as wild turkey and other wildlife.

If you have a large specimen that wouldn’t miss a limb or two, Southern magnolia makes an elegant holiday decoration in garlands, wreaths, or for decorating the mantle or holiday table. I’ve seen some outstanding frames decorated with both fresh green leaves, and even gold or silver gilded leaves. Many named varieties of Southern magnolia are available in the nursery trade, such as ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ or the petite ‘Little Gem’.

This Saturday, December 8, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., the public is invited to attend a free program and Winter Gallery Opening, featuring bald cypress sculpture and photographs by Claude Gipson, who will talk about how he first learned about bald cypress knees and made it his mission to reveal the beauty that lies beneath their surface. Light refreshments will be served.

A family holiday crafts workshop will take place Saturday, December 15 from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m., just in time for gift-giving! All materials will be provided, just bring your creativity and imagination. On the same day, from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m., a children’s Christmas Stocking Workshop will be held, where they will design and decorate a stocking for themselves, or a pet, family member, or friend. All materials provided. Both programs include snacks and refreshments. Cost for each program, members $4 per child; non-member child $6. Children must be accompanied by parent or guardian (no charge for adults). Reservations requested.

Call 601-799-2311 to sign up.

See or visit the Crosby Arboretum Facebook page for more information on programs and activities. We are open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 to 5. Leashed pets welcome. The Arboretum is located at 370 Ridge Road in Picayune, at I-59 Exit 4.