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What are Magnolias?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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Magnolias are flowering plants in the genus Magnolia, which contains over 200 species. Many people associate the magnolia with the American South, where magnolia trees are quite abundant, although these plants can be found in other regions of the world as well. Magnolias are famous for their extremely large white to crimson flowers, which are very showy and often slightly aromatic as well, and they also produce a famously cream-colored softwood which can be used in furnishings and other woodworking projects.

The Magnolia genus appears to be quite ancient, according to fossil evidence, and the plants have changed little since they first evolved. Depending on the precise species, a magnolia may grow into a very tall, heavily branched tree when it matures, or it may remain more shrubby. Some magnolias are deciduous, while others are evergreen, and these traits can also be influenced by the region where the magnolia is grown.

Magnolias are native to many corners of the world, including Eastern North America, parts of Central America, Southeast Asia, and West Indies, and parts of South America. Many of these plants have been brought to new corners of the world, since people find them aesthetically pleasing and they are sturdy plants which grow rapidly. As a general rule, magnolias will grow between USDA zones six and 10, with some species capable of surviving outside this zone.

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The genus is named for Pierre Magnol, a 17th century French botanist. Magnolias have large, often leathery leaves, scaly bark, and hairy buds which develop into large, showy flowers. Magnolia petals are also a bit leathery, although they bruise easily, and the plants have very ornate pistils which are sturdy enough to withstand a variety of insect visitors.

If you want to grow magnolias, your local garden store probably has an assortment of species which will be well suited to your local environment. Magnolias like full sun to partial shade, and if you plant a species which will develop into a tree, be aware that many people plant magnolias as shade trees, so don't plant a magnolia in a spot which you would like to remain sunny. Water requirements for magnolias are about average; the plants don't like to be allowed to dry out, but they also dislike soggy soil. You may need to support a young magnolia with stakes while it grows, especially if you live in a windy area.

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