Magnolia in northern Michigan. No, really. It is.

2020 November 15

As I sit here looking out the window watching a snowstorm rolling in, it is natural to want to remember happier days. So let’s turn back the clock to May 31 of 2019. It was warm and sunny, the grass was green, and the magnolias were blooming.


The tree was absolutely covered with enormous blossoms.



There is just one thing about this tranquil scene that doesn’t seem right, though . . .
Magnolias? In the upper peninsula of Michigan? Really? Aren’t magnolias known as a southern species? Aren’t they the state flower of Louisiana and Mississippi, both of which are known for their sweltering climates and near-complete lack of snow? What on earth is a magnolia tree doing growing up here?

Well, it turns out not to be as much of a stretch as I might have thought. First off, this isn’t just any magnolia. This is the hybrid Magnolia x soulangeana, which was developed in France in the 1820s and has become popular due to its large blossoms and relative tolerance for cold, wind, and alkaline soils.

Even so, it is normally listed as only being able to tolerate the winters down to USDA Zone 4. Most of the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan is only Zone 3. While the USDA considers the Keweenaw Peninsula to be Zone 4b or 5a due to the presence of Lake Superior moderating the temperature in the winter, it is still touch-and-go to raise a lot of supposedly “Zone 4” plants. The problem is a lot of these plants may survive the winter, but then they need hot days in the summer to grow well, and we just don’t get days that are particularly hot.

Which brings us to the second point about this particular tree: where it is planted. It is right next to the Civil Engineering building on the Michigan Tech campus.


Specifically, it is in a corner between two wings of the building, right up next to a south-facing wall and an east-facing wall. So, the building blocks the cold prevailing winds from the northwest, while leaving the tree fully exposed to the early morning sun and with good southern exposure for most of the day. The brick walls also absorb heat all day, helping to keep that corner warm through most of the night. The net result is that this corner is substantially warmer and more protected than almost anywhere else, which effectively shifts it into a much more congenial microclimate, with daytime temperatures probably 10 degrees warmer than what a tree out in the open would see. It also gets added light reflected back from all those windows, and there is probably enough heat leaking from the building in the winter to prevent it from freezing quite as much as other trees do.

I’ve been seriously considering making freestanding concrete-block walls on our property to produce similar microclimates to allow us to grow the more demanding sorts of trees on our property. Peaches would be nice. Or pawpaws.

Anyway, to wrap up, here is Rosie with dandelions in her hair.


2 Responses
  1. Carole permalink
    November 15, 2020

    What would really be nice would be a native tree with some value to wildlife.

  2. Lyle R Laylin permalink
    November 15, 2020

    I have to say this and please don’t take it as being too critical but I have to say – really pawpaws?
    I was taught and confirmed through experience that if you pick a pawpaw off the tree it’s green and tastes terrible. And if you pick one up off the ground it’s over ripe and rotten and tastes terrible. In order for a pawpaw to taste good you have to catch it in the air as it falls on its own.
    I was able to test the first and second items and decided I was willing to believe the Third without needing to wait around for an opportunity to test it.

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