Deciduous tree to 25(–32.6) m. Bark grey to brownish, smooth. Branchlets and foliar buds glabrous. Leaves crowded in terminal whorl-like clusters, stipules (5.4–)7–10 × 2–6 cm, glandular beneath. Leaf blade rhombic-obovate to obovate-spatulate or oblanceolate, broadest near middle, gradually tapering to base, 20–30(–60) × 8–16(–27) cm; base deeply cordate or auriculate to somewhat truncate; apex obtuse to acute or somewhat acuminate; glabrous and very glaucous beneath; glabrous and deep green above. Flowers in late spring, fragrant, 16–22 cm across; spathaceous bracts 2, glandular beneath; tepals creamy white, the outermost greenish; stamens 100–200, 8–14 mm; filaments white; carpels 50–90. Fruit ellipsoid, 5.5–10 × 2.5–5 cm, glabrous; follicles recurved, long-beaked, glabrous. Seeds lenticular, 7–10 mm, aril red. 2n=38. (Meyer 1997).
Distribution United States Appalachians and upper piedmont: Georgia, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia, W Virginia
Habitat Rich woods and coves; 300–1520 m.
USDA Hardiness Zone 6-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
This fast growing, medium-sized deciduous tree is placed in its own Section Tuliparia. It most resembles M. macrophylla, but has smaller leaves and glabrous purple rather than hairy brown winter buds; it also grows at higher altitudes in the American southeast than the less hardy forms of M. macrophylla. It shares with M. tripetala and other species of Section Rhytidospermum the habit of producing early-season leaves in false whorls at the branch tips, but is an altogether less gawky plant than M. tripetala. Usually multistemmed in the wild, it more often has a single trunk in cultivation. Its synonym M. auriculata makes reference to the usually auriculate leaf bases.
While William Bartram appears to have recognized Magnolia fraseri as distinct from M. macrophylla in the southern Appalachians, it was named by Thomas Walter (1788). Living material reached England in the 1780s, from either Bartram or the British plant collector John Fraser, who arranged publication of Walter’s Flora Caroliniana, and for whom the species is named (Weaver 1981).
It is the earliest flowering American species, on leafy shoots during late May and June in Britain, but up to a month earlier in the wild. The flowers are beetle pollinated (Thien 1974) and have a distinctive sweet scent; they contrast beautifully with the bronze tinted young leaves (Bean 1981). While the tepals are usually milky white, they are said sometimes to become yellower in cold weather in the wild, approaching the colour of lemons (Weaver 1981). The long, rosy red fruits are attractive, and in good areas for autumn leaf colour the foliage can turn anything from brown or brick red to a ‘heartwarming pumpkin-pie color’ (Jacobson 1996).
A rich, moist but well drained, acidic soil is ideal for this rather hardy tree, but it is known to tolerate both shade and alkaline soil in the wild. 30–40 cm of growth is put on annually, with trees typically reaching 9 m in 20 years. As seed germinates readily, this species is often used as a rootstock for grafting or budding.
Not a very common tree in the British Isles, most good specimens are in southern and western areas, despite its hardiness. The British champion is at Leonardslee, W Sussex (19.6 × 156 cm, 2021), while a considerably larger specimen in the same garden (24 m in 1984 – The Tree Register 2021) is now gone. It is recorded in several Belgian collections (Plantcol 2021), and at least as far east and north as Germany and southern Sweden (Bonn University Botanic Garden 2021; Gothenburg Botanical Garden 2021).
Although in the North American nursery trade since the 19th century, outside its wild range it is mainly a plant of specialist collections on both seaboards and in the Great Lakes area (University of Washington Botanic Gardens 2021; Arnold Arboretum 2021; Morton Arboretum 2021). The St Louis, MO area is apparently marginal, with evidence of both success and failure (Branhagen 2006; Missouri Botanical Garden 2021). The current American champion is a wild tree in Carroll Co., VA (26.8 m × 315 cm, 2015 – American Forests 2021).
Magnolia pyramidata W. Bartram
Magnolia fraseri subsp. pyramidata (W. Bartram) E. Murray
Magnolia auriculata var. pyramidata (W. Bartram) Nuttall
To 12 m tall, differing from var. fraseri in the following characters: leaf blade predominantly pandurate to broadly rhombic-spatulate, usually less than 25 cm long, abruptly tapered from broadest part to base; smaller flowers 12–18 cm across; fewer, smaller stamens 83–137(–150), 4.5–8(–10.5)mm; fruit smaller, 4–6 × 2.5–3.5cm. (Meyer 1997).
RHS Hardiness Rating: H6
USDA Hardiness Zone: 6-9
Usually a smaller tree, smaller too in leaf and flower, var. pyramidata is found at lower altitudes. It might be expected to be less hardy, although most authors give it a similar rating, perhaps based on slender evidence, this being a very rare tree. As a wild plant it is threatened by habitat degredation and loss (IUCN 2021).
It was first described (as a full species) by the 18th century American chronicler of southeastern natural history William Bartram; his name pyramidata refers to the conical crown of trees he observed (Treseder 1978). Accounts of its introduction to Europe vary considerably, and may be subject to confusion with var. fraseri; the careful Treseder (1978) states that Bartram (who clearly knew the difference) sent it to England in 1806. A specimen at Kew reached 6 m but is long gone (The Tree Register 2021). It is occasionally recorded in North American collections, for example in Washington Park, Seattle (University of Washington Botanic Gardens 2021).