May 29, 2021
As I came out of work last week, I noticed the two magnolia trees on the north side of the building had several flowers on them. While the beautiful array of flowers covering the trees had not yet happened, the display had begun. Magnolias are a popular ornamental tree that has a long history in the southern United States. Many large and incredibly old specimens can be found in the subtropical port cities of the Gulf and Southern Atlantic coast. The species is cultivated north into the coastal areas of the Maryland and up to Connecticut. On the West Coast the trees will grow north into Vancouver, Canada, but the cooler West Coast summers do slow growth compared to the East Coast. There are few known long term specimens found in the Midwest due to severe winters and lack of sufficient summer heat.
The Southern Magnolia (magnolia grandiflora), commonly known as the bull bay, is a tree of the family Magnoliaceae. The trees are native to the southeastern United States. This striking evergreen tree reaches 90’ (27.5 m) tall. It has large dark green leaves up to 7 3⁄4” (20 cm) long and 4 3⁄4” (12 cm) wide. The trees produce large, fragrant, white flowers up to 12” (30 cm) in diameter. Although they are native to the lowland subtropical forests on the Gulf and south Atlantic coastal plain, magnolia trees are widely cultivated in warm areas around the world. Obviously, that includes Northwest Arkansas.
An iconic Southern Magnolia planted by President Andrew Jackson nearly 200 years ago grew near the South Portico of the White House. It was said to be planted as a seedling from Jackson’s plantation, The Hermitage, in Tennessee. It was the oldest tree on the White House grounds and between 1928 and 1998 it was featured on the back of the $20 bill. Jackson is still pictured on the face of the bill. There was a tradition of gifting cuttings or seedlings grown from the tree. Among others, Ronald Reagan gifted a cutting to his Chief of Staff Howard Baker upon his retirement and Michelle Obama donated a seedling to the “people’s garden” of the US Department of Agriculture. During the 1940’s the tree suffered a gash that caused a large section of its trunk to rot, the tree had been supported by metal poles and cables. Due to its deteriorating condition and on the advice of the National Arboretum the Magnolia was removed on December 27, 2017.
Thoughts: When I checked online, I found the average lifespan of the Southern Magnolia is around 80 years, but there are some that live to 120 years. What is odd is the cause of this tree’s demise is a gash received in the 1940’s (120+ years old) and being clipped by a small plane in 1994 (170+ years old). Fortunately, White House groundskeepers have long been preparing for the loss and healthy offshoots of the tree were being grown at “an undisclosed greenhouse-like location.” Just as the tree thrived in cultivation, a study of more than 50 mammal species found that in over 80 per cent of cases, zoo animals also live longer than their wild counterparts. It seems the protection zoos offer against predators, disease, and the elements outweigh the social and behavioral problems of captivity. Still, larger species with few predators (like elephants) live longer in the wild. The greatest threat to most species is human encroachment. We destroy habits and then use crop and livestock depredation as an excuse to kill or confine animals to a zoo. We need to make an effort to find ways to live together. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.