One of the largest and hardiest of all magnolias, cucumber magnolia is native primarily to the eastern US. Often planted in parks, golf courses, and large residential spaces, its straight trunk and rounded crown bring elegant symmetry and dense shade to the landscape. It grows 60 to 80 feet tall in full or part sun and prefers moist, well-drained, loamy soils; however, it tolerates sandy and clay soils. It’s sensitive to overly wet or dry soils, urban pollution, drought, and soil compaction but has no serious pest or disease problems. This exceptional shade tree grows at a medium to fast rate and leaves little debris on the ground. The national champion cucumber magnolia—estimated to be 400 years old--stands 90 feet tall in Stark County, Ohio, with a massive circumference of over 26 feet.
The Magnolia genus is one of the most ancient among flowering trees. The slightly fragrant, greenish-yellow, tulip-like flowers bloom at the tips of twigs in late spring. Unlike other magnolias, the cup-shaped flowers usually grow near the top of the tree and tend to blend into the foliage. The tree gets its common name from the appearance of its immature fruits, which are green, warty, and shaped like a cucumber (a similar common name is cucumbertree). The cone-like fruits mature to pinkish-red and then brown in late summer, splitting open to release striking reddish-orange seeds hanging by slender threads.
Cucumber magnolia is prized for its large, wavy-edged foliage. The glossy, dark green leaves come in two forms: tapered at both ends, or pointed at the tip and heart-shaped at the base (this form usually occurs at the top of the tree). The specific epithet, acuminata, comes from the word acuminate, meaning “tapering to a point.”
Native habitats include bottomlands, slopes of hills, and foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Given a large space, this is an excellent choice for a shade or specimen tree.
Grows 50-80’ tall and 35-60’ wide.
Prefers full sun and tolerates part shade.
Prefers moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soils with organic matter.
Solitary, upright flowers bloom April-June and are 2-4” long with 6 petals that are broadest near the tip. Fruit cone is a smooth, tightly packed cluster of dried fruits 2-3” long, often curved; individual seeds are globe shaped and flattened.
Alternate, ovate to oblong leaves are 6-10” long with smooth, undulating margins and pointed tips. Fall color is golden yellow.
Trunk has a diameter of 3-4’. Young bark is smooth and gray, while mature bark is deeply furrowed and brown. Broken twigs release a sweet-spicy scent.
Trees in the Magnolia genus host at least 21 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including spicebush swallowtail, tuliptree silkmoth, and eastern tiger swallowtail. The flowers are cross-pollinated by beetles. Towhees and other ground-feeding birds and small mammals eat the fruits and seeds. Deer occasionally browse the twigs, leaves, and buds.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Early settlers used the immature fruit as a fever medicine and to flavor whiskey. Some people chewed the bark to break nicotine addiction. Native Americans and settlers ate the flowers and buds as a minor food source.
The durable, light-weight, straight-grained wood is similar to that of the tulip tree. Often marketed together, the two woods are used for pallets, crates, furniture, plywood, and interior paneling.
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