Often described as the most beautiful tree in the American forest, the southern magnolia impresses with its foot long white flowers and an unmistakable floral scent. Combined with a large crown of shiny dark green leaves, this evergreen hardwood is a popular ornamental and statement tree in many parks and mansions in the southern United States.
The southern magnolia and its relatives are some of the oldest hardwood species known to botanists. They were among the first trees to evolve flowers. These colourful and fragrant adaptations attracted the earliest flying insects. Millions of years of coevolution between tree and insect has produced a mutually beneficial relationship where the insects receive food while the trees get pollinated.
The southern magnolia grows in a narrow band roughly 100 miles wide from North Carolina south to Florida. From there it grows west, hugging the coast of the Caribbean all the way to Texas. It prefers the moist soils of these lowland areas. It is a medium sized tree, growing to 80 feet in height with a maximum diameter of 3 feet.
Southern magnolia is diffuse pored with small to medium sized longitudinal cells. The wood is therefore fine-grained with growth rings that are barely visible. It is straight grained and rarely produces any interesting figure.
Southern Magnolia end-grain
The sapwood is large and is a creamy white to yellowish white in colour. The relatively small heartwood is a tan to dark brown with occasional green, purple or black mineral streaks. Befitting a tree with mostly white wood, the southern magnolia should be cut and dried soon after felling to prevent blue stain during drying. It dries with little checking or warpage and is very stable once dry.
Southern magnolia works well by hand and machine. You can plane it to a fine surface that needs little sanding. Sharp tools yield excellent detail when the wood is carved or turned. It doesn’t split easily, so it can be nailed or screwed, although predrilling for both is good practise. Southern magnolia glues easily and is a good candidate for steam bending.
Finishing southern magnolia is a breeze. The small pore size eliminates the need for grain filling before finishing. It stains with minimal ‘blotching’. You can also paint it or clearcoat it. Lack of odour and taste makes it a good choice for bowls and food containers.
Southern magnolia can be used for furniture, cabinetry, turnings, interior trim (it’s not exterior friendly) and even pallets. It is particularly known for its use in venetian blinds where its stability and ease of machining make for durable and warp free slats.
Southern magnolia is one of those woods that flies under the radar. While it is quite commonly used in the south, it has never really caught on with woodworkers outside the region. This is unfortunate given its excellent stability and working characteristics. Perhaps its striking appearance makes it difficult to even consider cutting it down for lumber.
If you want to work with southern magnolia, you will have to bring it up from the southern United States. A good specialty wood dealer can assist you here. Thicknesses up to 2” are commonly available. There are 3 common magnolia species, and they are often mixed together; so be aware of this fact if you are looking specifically for southern magnolia. It is reasonably priced, but shipping could be expensive. There are no environmental concerns with this species.
I’ve never worked with southern magnolia but researching this article has piqued my curiosity. I’ll keep my eyes open for the opportunity to pick some up. Until then, I’ll plan a trip to an arboretum in the spring where I can appreciate the beauty of this tree up close.