Magnolia fraseri is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful trees in our eastern forests. To see this species, one must travel to the Southern Appalachian Mountains where it is endemic. With its whorls of massive leaves, large, cream colored flowers, and smooth gray bark, it is an unmistakeable component of the Appalachian cove forests.
M. fraseri needs canopy gaps to persist. Anywhere that disturbance opens up the canopy and allows light in, M. fraseri is soon to follow. This tree has surely benefitted from the mass die off of eastern hemlock due to the invasive hemlock wooly adelgid. This species flowers in the spring. Magnolias as a whole are an ancient lineage of flowering plants, arising before bees evolved. For that reason, their flowers are pollinated by beetles instead of bees. The large, showy flowers soon give way to your typical magnolia seed pod. As the seeds mature, they are pushed out of their pod and their bright red coloration helps to attract their main seed disperser, birds.
Aside from seed production, the most common form of reproduction for M. fraseri is via stump sprouts. In fact, it is believed that many of the oldest M. fraseri in the Appalachian forest region are stump sprouts that harken back to a time in which forest clearing was more rampant.
The overall appearance of this tree feels tropical. The large leaves are are arranged like an umbrella and these whorls stack themselves all the way up the trunk. Why this species is not cultivated as a native landscape tree is beyond me and I think the following excerpt by Richard E. Weaver Jr. sums it up quite nicely:
"Many of our fine native plants remain rare in cultivation in our own
country for a variety of reasons. Over-familiarity with them as wild
plants; lack of commercial availability; ignorance as to culture and
propagation; or plain snobbishness. Many are far better appreciated abroad."
Magnolia fraseri was one of the first plants that greeted me upon entering North Carolina. It was growing alongside a pawpaw at a scenic overlook that showcased the hardwood forests that coat these mountains. I never pass up an opportunity to appreciate this tree and indeed I will carry the image of it in my mind wherever I go.
Photo Credit: Jim Dollar (http://bit.ly/1R2Qpjy)