Steel Magnolias




“I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”

-Robert Harling, Steel Magnolias


Our saucer magnolia had a tiny bit of stamina left, but I didn’t think it was worth saving. Sapsuckers had just about taken the life out of it three years ago. I wanted to cut it down. Rose would have none of it. My buddy the arborist Robert Rollins intervened. He listened to both impassioned sides. His advice: take it easy; give the tree the tree a little time.

Robert’s crew drastically cut back the dead limbs, approaching one-quarter of the entire canopy. Dozens of weak sucker sprouts grew that first year. Surprisingly, since then, the tree has kept chugging along.

I kept asking around.

Sapsucker shot holes.

Paul Cappiello, Executive Director of Yew Dell Gardens in Crestwood, Kentucky, emailed an explanation of what’s going on with our stressed tree.  “It could be that the sapsuckers have so cut off the upper part of the plant that the plant is forcing out sucker growth further down the trunk—sort of a weak spot in a hose springing a growth leakage rather than all the energy and water getting up to the top of the plant.”

Our neighbor Otis Knox planted the Magnolia x soulangeana in the early 80s, down near the barn and the old corncrib. Otis once owned our place in Salvisa.  He lives across the Salt River from us now. A few weeks ago I asked Otis about the wood-pecking sapsuckers. He didn’t remember that they had been a problem on his watch.

Rings of shot holes, from the base of the tree to the top, disrupted the flow of sap and cut off portions of the tree’s nervous system. The damage is telltale.  Too many shot holes can kill a tree.

Sapsuckers seem to be picky about their tastes. In our case, they chose Otis’s tree.  There might be something special about this magnolia’s sap—its unique, sweet nectar. If there had been a dozen adjacent saucer magnolias, it’s possible the sapsuckers would have ignored them.

We hung an owl decoy in the saucer magnolia. We haven’t heard or seen sapsuckers since.

Otis Knox and the white pines he planted. His saucer magnolia is in the background.

Otis has always loved trees. He planted a dozen white pines down here in 1976. He’d brought them up from near his family’s home place in the mountains near the little town of Bowen in Powell County, not far from the Red River Gorge. One of the pines spawned a witches broom years later. Nurseryman Karl Klein, from Crestwood, KY, grafted a few pieces of scion wood from the witches broom onto seedling white pines. I named the little tree ‘Otis Knox.’ I have it planted in the garden. It’s nothing remarkable (witches brooms on pine trees being a dime a dozen). But the little pine means a lot to me because Otis had a hand in the planting of the original pines.

Otis loved this land. Rose and I are heirs to his legacy. Besides planting dozens of trees, including oaks, a few black gums, yellowwoods, coffee trees, service berries and redbuds, we have also planted a few magnolias.

Otis asked me a few weeks ago if I’d ever seen a wahoo tree. I wasn’t sure what he meant. Was he thinking of the wahoo bush (Euonymous americanus)?  He said no.

The fallen leaves of a wahoo tree, or big leaf magnolia, in November.

I’d never heard of the big leaf Magnolia macrophylla being called a wahoo tree, but Otis said this was how it was known around parts of Eastern Kentucky.

He said he’d once brought back a wahoo tree from the mountains and planted it at his current place across the Salt River from us. The tree didn’t make it.

Three years ago I planted a one-gallon wahoo tree, or big leaf Magnolia macrophylla, about 30 feet from the damaged saucer magnolia that Otis had planted in 1981. The wahoo tree is a pokey thing. Ours is only three feet tall today but it might eventually grow from 50’ to 75’ in favorable conditions.  Rich, evenly moist, slightly alkaline to acidic soils would be the preferred ones.

Holly Cooper photo.

I still worry that the saucer magnolia might not make it. I’d imagined the wahoo tree would be its successor, but the saucer magnolia is still hanging in there. It began blooming magnificently on Easter Sunday.

I often think of Otis when I walk by these special magnolias on my way to the barn. One Magnolia has endured cold and drought for 37 years but seldom suffered for lack of attention—too much so from sapsuckers.  The other is a pampered newcomer waiting for center stage.

Holly Cooper photo.

I don’t know who will show up, but I hope one day there will be someone else curious about these wonderful trees.

There will be a stone bench waiting next to the crooked corncrib.


  1. Wonderful story! Saucer magnolias are tough trees. We had one in East Lansing, Michigan, which I believe was the only magnolia in or anywhere near East Lansing. The previous owners were determined to push the edge of the hardiness envelope and fill the 3/4 acre lot with plants that had no business in Michigan. Our yard was a field trip destination for Michigan State horticulture students, and the source of my long-standing love for magnolias and roses. So glad you kept the magnolia!

    • Camille, I’m glad we kept the magnolia, too! Otis came over last week to inspect his planting. He was delighted with all the blooms. But, as happens with many of these deciduous magnolias, his wahoo tree got nailed last night by freezing temperatures.

  2. I call the deciduous Asian Magnolias ‘heartbreak trees’, because they often start to bloom, then have their flowers killed to brown mush by spring freezes. My neighbor had a typical saucer Magnolia that was about 15′ when it died. She relied on her in-ground irrigation system to water everything, and a sprinkler head had been turned so it missed the tree. She cut it down to a stump, started watering it, and it grew well. After a few years, it was a lovely multi-stemmed shrub, blooming prolifically, actually prettier than the original single trunk tree-form. She was very happy, and learned to water her young woodies with a hose, and not rely on an irrigation system designed for a lawn.

    • Jacquelyn, yes indeed, the Asian magnolias can be one of many gardening heartaches. Maybe, it’s the spring timing. After a long winter, I always hope the blooms will be ignored by frosts. By April, I’m tired of cold weather. The flowers get blasted more often than I’d like, but when they are blooming—my oh my.

      • Yes, I’ve never been without one in my garden. I have ‘Jane’ now, and in the past I’ve had others of the National Arboretum Little Girls (‘Ann’ and ‘Betty’) in my Maryland garden, and they usually bloom after the last frost.

        As for the bigleaf Magnolia tribe, I grew and loved M. Ashei in Maryland, and it certainly did bloom as a 3′ high sapling! I planted one here in KY, but I think the site was too moist, and it died after a wet winter. I’d love to try again, but they are not easy to find. Yew Dell has a beautiful mature bigleaf, and several younger ones, and has offered them in their plant sale, which is where I got my ashei as well. As for ‘Wahoo tree’ I will NEVER use that name for bigleaf! Common names are confusing enough! To apply the common name of one plant to another is just adding to the problem. I try to use common names that are a direct translation of the botanical name whenever possible! I always call Juniperus virginiana ‘Virginia juniper’ rather than ‘Eastern red cedar’, for example. ‘There ought to be a law!”

  3. Nice article Allen. When my Magnolia ashei comes into bloom I’ll try to remember to send you a picture of it. I got it years ago not long after moving to TN from northern NY. Purchased fromNearly Native Nursery in Central GA. Had to cut it to the ground a few years back after it was attacked by Ambrosia borers. It is back and close to 15 ft tall. Very sparing in seed production , I have had one viable seed in all the years & the seedling is now about 3 ft tall & it bloomed last Spring. M.ashei blooms at an early age. M. macrophylla is the opposite.

    • Hey Paul,

      Interesting about the Magnolia ashei being quicker to flower. I know the wahoo tree/big leaf Magnolia is slow to bloom. I’m taking the long view and hoping I’ll see it in bloom one day if the ambrosia borer doesn’t get it first. This nasty little menace is already in southern Kentucky, so I fear it’s on the march northwards. Were they really destructive overall? Did they come and go away?

  4. Oh Allen, a beautiful tribute to magnolias. I had high hopes for mine this year and I just about got that thirty minutes of beauty from each one, a Magnolia stellata, ‘Jane’, and ‘Ann’. Every bloom on each opened simultaneously on Thursday in the 80ºtemps and then turned to brown paper after Saturday night’s now of 26F. Oops, maybe next year.

    • Prof. Roush, our magnolia bloom are shot and I’m growing impatient. Snow flurries this morning. High temps around 43 F. The Run for the Roses is less than 3 weeks away. Hard to drink a mint julep when it’s this cold.

  5. These Magnolias have given me zone envy for years, they are so beautiful. It’s amazing what plants can survive. I have an ancient apricot on our vacation property that has little care trim regularly by the deer. It’s so gnarled up it look like a Japanese bonsai. Many would remove it but I have planted other fruit trees around for the day when it no longer takes center stage

Comments are closed.