I am more than a little excited about finally having a bigleaf magnolia in my garden! My tree is still tiny (one gallon pot) but it should look like this beautiful one in a few years. Bigleaf magnolia is an understory tree that will reach 30 - 50 feet or so at maturity.
The leaves of bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) are pleasantly velvety, and they are quite macro, often over two feet long and a foot wide. Leaves of this size are usually found in the tropics, not our temperate zone. The flowers are uncommonly large, too, and the scent is, well, southern -- Magnolia grandiflora with a twist of lemon. I especially love the red/purple at the base of the petals and the way the whole blossom glistens in the sun.
Botanist Andre Michaux first described bigleaf magnolia in 1789 from a site he visited in Gaston County (just one county west of Charlotte!). It can be found in several other states in the southeastern US, but is endangered in at least a couple of those. It is listed as imperiled in North Carolina and is not particularly common anywhere.
If you look for bigleaf magnolia in the wild, make note of the tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) and American beech (Fagus grandiflora) because these trees are often nearby. Also check out gaps in the canopy of the woods in ravines and north-facing slopes. The soil stays a little more moist than the rest of the woods, and the tree's seedlings with their easily damaged leaves are protected from wind in these situations.
The Cherokee had several medicinal uses for Magnolia macrophylla. An infusion of the bark was taken as an analgesic for stomach pain and cramps. It was also used for toothache and was snuffed for sinus problems. (From Native American Ethnobotany by D. Moerman, 1998.)
If you would like to grow this tree yourself, the North Carolina Native Plant Society maintains a list of local native plant nurseries which might have it. Occasional plant sales at the Botanical Gardens at UNC Charlotte are a good bet, and you can visit and admire several specimens in the gardens while you're out there.
Thank you to Gail at Clay and Limestone for hosting Wildflower Week this week!