Identifying the Common Magnolias

Southern Magnolia
Photo by Steve Nix

The magnolia tree is a large genus of about 220 flowering plant species worldwide. Nine species are native to the United States and Canada and the tree commonly refers to trees of the genus Magnolia that are a part of the magnolia family Magnoliaceae. It is interesting to note that the tulip tree or yellow poplar is in the same family but in a different genus called Liriodendron and I deal with it separately.

ID Tips: The major identification markers of North American magnolia during the spring/early summer growing season are big aromatic flowers with many parts including showy petals and sepals. Their leaves are alternate in arrangement but can appear whorled at the branch tips. They tend to be large and often "floppy" with rolling to waving edges

The fruit of the magnolia is also a great way to identify the tree as it is relatively large and unique in shape. Magnolias have large seed pods that look like cones, which are unique when compared to most hardwood tree species. Depending on the species, the upright cone will expand exposing red berries which are a favorite food for wildlife. 

Cucumber Tree Vs. Southern Magnolia

The Southern magnolia is defined by its name - this magnolia lives in the deep part of the southeastern United States. Arthur Plotnik in his Urban Tree Book describes it as the "anointed one" and a "pompous" evergreen tree that perfumes the southern United States in early summer and planted in warm climates all over the world. It is the Louisiana state flower and Mississippi's state tree.

The cucumber tree and saucer magnolia are magnolias enjoyed by the northern states and Canada. The stately cucumber tree is the only magnolia that reaches Canada and is common in the Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains.

  • Leaves: alternate, simple, persistent or deciduous, unlobed
  • Twigs: aromatic, bundle scars conspicuous.
  • Fruit: a conelike aggregate of seed.

The Common North American Magnolias

  • Cucumber tree
  • Southern magnolia

The Most Common North American Hardwood List