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Magnolias are a good fit for Miami. So why don’t we see more of them?

A Miami magnolia that flowers regularly.
A Miami magnolia that flowers regularly. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

The lovely magnolia is a classic symbol of southern horticultural charm, right up there with Spanish-moss-draped live oaks and bald cypress. But why aren’t there more in Southeast Florida?

I have noticed a small number of magnolia trees scattered here and there in Miami, including a couple in my own neighborhood. One in south Kendall looks a bit small, like the smallest of the litter. Not sickly, just a little bit undersized compared to the grand specimens of Magnolia grandiflora in North Florida. Those thrive in classic pyramidal form, popping out dinner-plate-sized flowers in spring and summer. But even though local trees may be smaller in stature, those deep olive green leaves are unmistakable.

Why is the magnolia so intriguing? Its ancient ancestry is humbling. With fossils of the magnolia family dating back about 95 million years, it was one of the earliest flowering plants and well predates the event or events that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

When I approach one to look for flowers or fruit, I usually run to it, only to slow down as though approaching a deity, with a mixture of awe and deep respect. There’s just something about them. And then there are the flowers, huge and linen-white.

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Southern magnolia flowers can measure a foot across. Kenneth Setzer Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

We think of magnolias as classics of the American South, but something like two-thirds of magnolia species are native to Asia. Their ancient lineage means their distribution around the world is scattered, often separated by great distances — an interesting result of having survived catastrophes, climate change and plate tectonics. They’re a living lesson in biogeography and the evolution of flowering plants.

That smallish magnolia near my home may well be Magnolia grandiflora “Little Gem,” a cultivar bred to stay small at 15-20 feet. It’s been hanging on there for years and flowers regularly.

Another magnolia worth mentioning is sweet bay, Magnolia virginiana, a native of swamps and low-lying areas. It does fine with low-nutrient soil, but prefers increased acidity. Its leaves are silvery underneath, unlike the rusty leaf undersides of southern magnolia.

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Magnolia fruit is a colorful, odd cone-shaped structure. Kenneth Setzer Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

We’ve got the heat and sun most magnolias need (there are temperate species too), so it seems our alkaline soil keeps them out of our gardens. But there is hope. Native to Asia, Magnolia champaca, for example, needs warm temps and soil that is neutral to slightly acidic. Surely a large hole dug for this tree could be acidified with cow manure and organic peat humus, and later fortified with the kind of acid fertilizer gardenias prefer. And, champaca flowers, though smaller than southern magnolia’s blooms, are numerous, very fragrant and an attractive pale orange to yellow.

There are many other magnolia species and varieties, and some from Asia that actually prefer limestone soil, but they are apparently not available in cultivation yet. And though I’ve never seen it myself, Magnolia coco grows only to 6 feet or so, small enough for a large pot. The soil in a pot is easily controlled and kept acidic. Tempting. You can tell I really want to see more magnolias in Miami. It is possible.

Kenneth Setzer is writer and editor at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
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