Southern showstoppers: In praise of the magnolia

"Lady Marmalade (Patti LaBelle)": Mixed-media collage by artist Judy McLeod “Lady Marmalade (Patti LaBelle)”: Mixed-media collage by artist Judy McLeod

“The pleasantest smell in the world,” wrote natural historian Robert Beverly of the Sweetbay magnolia in 1705, and its large, creamy white flowers are just as striking. Associated with nobility and perseverance, the more than 200 species of magnolia vie with dogwood, crepe myrtle, azaleas and camellias for the American South’s favorite plant. Thomas Jefferson was an early proponent, sending seeds to friends and planting trees at his home.

“Jefferson grew the deciduous Sweetbay and Umbrella varieties,” says Peggy Cornett, curator of plants at Monticello, “the latter in rows in the upper grove.” On UVA’s Grounds, a spreading, pinkish-purple Saucer Magnolia stands to the left of Jefferson’s statue in front of the Rotunda, which itself was flanked by seven evergreen Southern magnolias until they were removed in 2014. “The Southern variety is beautiful and reliably evergreen, but they grow so fast that they tend to get out of scale to the building and take over the architecture,” says Cornett.

Nonetheless, the appeal of the magnolia endures. Its bark possesses medicinal properties, its cone-like fruit produces slender red seeds that are favorites of birds and small mammals and its graceful, cup-shaped flowers and shiny, dark green leaves make an elegant cutting for a Southern table. “Spectacular,” says Cornett.