The Southern Magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora) has a fondness for Camp Salmen Nature Park. They’re found from one end of the park to the other in all sizes and shapes — from scruffy runts trying to grow clear of the underbrush to the stately, full-grown specimens gracing the edges of our lawns or secreted in our shady woods.
The trees are loaded down with Southern “moonlight and magnolias” charm. They have an uncommon dark beauty with their year ‘round covering of big, glossy, dark green leaves and their striking, conspicuously large, spring time flowers of pure white petals. These blossoms glow in the nighttime air and fill it with a heady, romantic scent as they age gracefully into beautiful shades of brown. These traits attract both Southern Ladies and the insect pollinators, not that there are necessarily any other similarities.
Once the petals on these flowers drop, a most bizarre looking seedpod develops. They are as big as corncobs and dotted with sockets containing dozens of glossy, bright red seeds. These are a favorite for birds who pluck them out for an exotic dinner.
One of the reasons the plant’s reproductive structures might look weird is the tree is prehistoric, the oldest survivor of an early, and successful, experiment by Mother Nature to develop flowering plants (angiosperms). This was in the time of the dinosaurs and even predates the appearance of bees. The plant had to rely instead, on beetles to pollinate and still does. Since these ornery bugs, the dogs of the insect world, have a tendency to chew on everything, it is supposed the plant responded through evolution by bulking up with heavy petals and stiff, inedible leaves.
The trees drop minor quantities of these leaves early each season and because of this toughness, they don’t quickly decompose. Instead, they spend the summer bleaching in the sun and drifting across the lawns. From a distance they can fool the overly fastidious, zero-litter-tolerant park ranger, making them think the leaves are litter and erroneously going after what turns out being to be just another dried magnolia leaf.