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When planted in just the right spot, this small, multi-stemmed tree rewards with year-long appeal. As the name implies, it has enormous leaves clustered near the ends of the branches in a whorl-like pattern that resembles an open umbrella. Large, creamy white flowers bloom in May, followed in fall by cone-shaped fruits with glossy, scarlet seeds arranged in a spiral pattern. The smooth, grayish bark of the bare, winter branches resembles elk antlers, inspiring some to call the tree “elkwood.” The genus name honors French botanist Pierre Magnol, and the Latin word tripetala means “three petals.”

 

Umbrella magnolia grows 15 -30 feet tall at a slow to medium rate with an upright, irregular branching habit and open, spreading crown. Because it’s usually found in the wild as an understory tree along streams and also in sun at the edges of woods, it has the ability to tolerate nearly full shade to full sun. The irregular branching pattern, large leaves, and coarse texture may be cumbersome in smaller landscapes, but this magnolia will make a fine specimen tree if given enough room. It benefits from being sited in sheltered areas to protect the early blooms from frost and the broad leaves from strong winds. Umbrella magnolia is a fairly low-maintenance tree, although it will need supplemental water if planted in a dry, sunny area. Water the young tree weekly and deeply the first two years until established. Unwanted main trunks should be removed when the tree is young. Otherwise, it should only need light pruning to remove suckers in the spring.

 

One of eight magnolias native to the US, umbrella magnolia has a limited native range in the eastern part of the country and is common in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s listed as potentially threatened or rare in its native range of southern Ohio. Similar in appearance to bigleaf magnolia, M. tripetala’s leaf bases are “V” shaped rather than “B” shaped. All Magnolia species have high-fat seeds that provide food for many small mammals and birds seeking extra energy for migration or overwintering.

 

Native habitats include rich, moist woods; shaded ravines and coves; and edges of streams and swamps. Use at the edges of woods, as an understory tree, or as a specimen in larger landscapes.  

 

Plant Characteristics:

Grows 15-30’ tall and wide.

 

Grows in part to nearly full shade. Tolerates full sun if soils are kept moist.

 

Prefers slightly acidic, average to moist soils. Generally intolerant of overly dry or wet conditions.

 

Flowers are 6-10” across and have 6-9 white tepals and a large red style that later develops into a cone-shaped aggregate of seed-bearing follicles that ripen September-October. It may take up to 10 years for a newly planted tree to bloom.

 

Alternate leaves are simple, oblong, 10-24” long and 6-10” wide. Leaves are dark green above and paler beneath with soft, short hairs. Fall color is yellow to brown.

 

Multi-stemmed trunk reaches 4” diameter. Bark is light gray to brown and smooth.

 

Wildlife Value:

Trees in the Magnolia genus host at least 21 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly. Beetles are the primary pollinators of this genus. The seeds are valuable to robins, mockingbirds, vireos, wood thrushes, and kingbirds, and other birds and small mammals. The branches and leaves provide shelter for wildlife. Deer occasionally browse the twigs and buds. 

 

Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Native Americans used the bark, roots, and stems to treat fevers and rheumatism. The bark is used in Chinese medicine to help with anxiety and asthma.

Magnolia, Umbrella, Magnolia tripetala

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