By the end of this week, the air will be filled with the amazing scent of saucer magnolias blooming. To celebrate, GM is re-running his piece from 2017 about magnolia trees. Enjoy!:
This week for Know Your Trees, GM will consider a group of trees known primarily for their flowers: the magnolias.
While there are a wide variety of species and sub-species of magnolias throughout the world, in Georgetown you are likely to see three basic types: southern magnolias, saucer magnolias, and the Yulan magnolia.
The southern magnolia is quite different from the other two. It is easier identified by its big waxy green leaves with cinnamon brown undersides:
Despite having a deciduous look, southern magnolias are actually evergreens. They keep their leaves through the winter, and only start shedding them once new leaves are ready to replace them. (The shedding is a feature that leads many to dislike this tree.)
In the early summer they sport large showy white flowers, although typically they appear only a few at a time on the tree:
There are not a ton of southern magnolias in tree boxes along the sidewalks in Georgetown, but they are everywhere around Georgetown and DC.
Other than the fact that the flowers are similar, the other two magnolias are quite different.
The saucer magnolia is probably the more popular of the two. It is a medium sized deciduous tree. It features oval leaves like the southern magnolia, but ones that are much smaller and not waxy in appearance:
The bark is smooth and light gray like this:
But the most distinctive feature of saucer magnolias is their flowers. They appear early in the spring (even before the cherries) and feature large white and pink flowers like this:
The flowers cover the trees and have an incredibly fragrant smell. For many, this smell has an almost Proust-eating-a-Madeleine effect of conjuring memories of warm springs past.
The flowers are a little less attractive once they’ve fallen. They turn brown and incredibly slick, causing a hazard. And the sugary nectar that just one week early gave off a sweet scent turns into a ripe fermented odor.
And since the flowers come so early, they are subject to late freezes which can completely destroy them. One day they’re a nice pink, the next they look like burnt crumpled up paper. This sadly happened last spring.
Like the southern magnolias, the saucer magnolias don’t tend to be planted in tree boxes, but you see them around on private property a lot. There are several notable groupings of them around Georgetown, including the 1500 block of 28th St., the 1500 block of Wisconsin Ave. (in front of the Lutheran Church), in front of Georgetown Medical School on Reservoir Rd., and in Dumbarton Oaks gardens.
The last magnolia, the Yulan magnolia is much like the saucer magnolia. In fact, the saucer magnolia is a hybrid species created from the Yulan magnolia. Flowers of the Yulan magnolia look like the saucer magnolia, but are generally all white. They also tend to have more narrow petals.