At the beginning of the week, I noticed our native magnolias flowering profusely. First, the evergreen southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora), which line the entrance to the South Carolina Botanical Garden (SCBG), put on a show. Then, a few days later, one of our deciduous magnolias, the bigleaf, was covered in plate-sized flowers. In fact, the bigleaf (Magnolia macrophylla) has the largest simple leaf and flower of any native plant on the continent. Magnolias are an ancient plant, one of the earliest flowering trees (angiosperm) in the world. I love to think about these trees growing among the dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period, around 100 million years.
Magnolias evolved before bees and are pollinated by beetles who forage in the flowers for pollen and nectar. Over time magnolias and beetles co-evolved. The female flower parts (carpels), leaves, and seed pods are toughened to withstand the onslaught of chomping beetle mouthparts. The carpels mimic the male flower parts (stamen) to encourage the beetles to stay longer and dine more. Female stigmas are active first, and they emit a strong fragrance to attract beetles searching for nectar. Later In the evening, the magnolia flower closes to trap pollen-covered beetles inside. In the morning, the trapped beetles are showered with fresh pollen that they move to the next blossom. Bees and other insects also visit but are not pollinators.
Our iconic, evergreen southern magnolia is widespread. Less well-known are the native deciduous magnolias, which make their homes in our woods. M. macrophylla (the bigleaf magnolia mentioned above) is native to our region but not common, so being able to see the specimens in the SCBG is a treat. Other native deciduous magnolias you will find here include Fraser magnolia (M. fraseri) and Umbrella magnolia (M. tripetala). Maybe one is suitable for your landscape.
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