First Flower

South Carolina’s native cowcumber magnolia (M. macrophylla) bears the largest leaves and flowers of all North American trees.  After days of heavy rain, I looked out the window this morning into a gray fog and noticed a brilliant white bloom on the cowcumber I planted in the woodland garden almost exactly 5 years ago.


Magnolia macrophylla

Purchased as a seedling at a spring sale of the Upstate Chapter of the SC Native Plant Society, the small tree now stands about 5-feet tall.  A few hours into the day, when the flower began to open, I took photos to record the momentous occasion.


First flower highlighted by morning light.

The leaves of this deciduous magnolia can reach 32-inches long and its blooms up to 20-inches across, but the largest leaf on this immature tree measures 24-inches and the flower’s tepals are 6-inches long, which would make a 12-inch spread when fully open.

The underside of leaves have a sheen that is silver to white and the tepals are marked with purple at their base, which is another unique feature.


Purple markings at the base of the flower tepals are an identifying feature.

Found in scattered populations throughout  the Southeast, M. macrophylla is very rare in South Carolina, with only two small viable populations remaining in York County (primarily due to a preference for neutral soils).  Thus, the tree is listed as critically imperiled in this state.

Luckily, however, it is fairly easy to grow in cultivation and is popular with native-plant aficionados and in-the-know gardeners for its spectacular leaves and flowers.



30 thoughts on “First Flower

  1. Amy Henderson

    I am blown away!!! As a Northerner, recently transplanted to Greenville SC, I have seen the cucumber tree, M. acuminata, in blossom, and have admired this “cowcumber,” M. macrophylla in nurseries and on the High Line, but have not seen its flowers. Who knows if it will blossom on the High Line, at the cold end of its hardiness zone, quite exposed? I am a landscape designer, trying to get to know my new gardening home and to network with “plant people” so it would be a thrill to visit your garden and meet you. Please email off-blog if that might be possible. Cheers, Amy

  2. Cathy

    It really is quite spectacular Marian! The foliage alone is so pretty, but that flower is gorgeous. What a lovely surprise for you this morning!

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Eliza–Yes, it was a big surprise. I’ve been terribly busy this spring and not getting into the garden very much, so am lucky the tree is in a spot I can see from my bedroom window. I easily could have missed the excitement!

  3. germac4

    What a joy to see the first flower unfolding … A rare treat I’m sure. I was impressed with the many mature Magnolias trees in the parks in Italy giving people shade & beautiful flowers.

  4. Beth @ PlantPostings

    Now that is something to celebrate! I’m so happy for you that the tree is thriving and now blooming. It’s hard for me to imagine a Magnolia, let alone a tree, with leaves and flowers that large. Does it have a pleasant scent, too?

  5. Martha Murtiashaw

    Marian, This species can be seen in Oconee County.  Good specimens on the hike to Licklog and Pigpen Falls, a part of the Foot Hills Trail. Martha Murtiashaw

    From: Hortitopia To: Sent: Wednesday, April 26, 2017 1:30 PM Subject: [New post] First Flower #yiv8738527184 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv8738527184 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv8738527184 a.yiv8738527184primaryactionlink:link, #yiv8738527184 a.yiv8738527184primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv8738527184 a.yiv8738527184primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv8738527184 a.yiv8738527184primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv8738527184 | Marian St.Clair posted: “South Carolina’s native cowcumber magnolia (M. macrophylla) bears the largest leaves and flowers of any North American tree.  This morning after days of heavy rain, I looked out the window into a heavy gray fog and noticed a brilliant white bloom on the c” | |

  6. Brenda

    What a beauty. The first blossom is a momentous occasion. It’s a bit like a baby’s first steps, no? You must be happy that you were home to see it. Do you know why it’s named cowcumber? Do the leaves resemble cucumbers, or does it have a cucumbery-fragrance? I am also distracted by Martha’s comment above. Imagine a grove of cowcumber magnolias on the trail to Licklog and Pigpen Falls. I love descriptive place names. So much scope for imagination!


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