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The Southern Magnolia

Nick Caligari

“Hey Nick, so you’re in that tree class, or whatever, right? Well ok, so what’s this one called?” (points to a Southern Magnolia) My response: “Oh that? Why, that is a…beautiful tree.” I gave a similar response to a series of these questions my friend asked me. They were slightly immature. Silly, yet kind of funny. Unfortunately, they were serious responses. I knew nothing of trees, except that they were green in the summer, orange in the fall, bare in the winter, and would bud in the spring. Some held fruits I could pick off, and some produced pollen that made me wish autumn was an everlasting season.  At best, I knew only of their scientific purposes. I mean, I would like to think most people are aware of how we derive the oxygen we breathe. However, if even I knew it, then it must be common knowledge, thus diminishing its marvel. So what is so special about them?  Why am I even in this class? Why did I insist on taking it when my chances of enrollment were so grim this year? Last year, in fact, I was rejected due to class capacity. The answer? The Southern Magnolia.

Allow me to be candid here. If I ended this segment by saying the Southern Magnolia is gorgeous, then I have not done it or the UNC-CH campus justice. The Southern Magnolia, scientific name Magnolia Grandiflora, is an evergreen tree with an appearance that is simply magnificent in the spring and summer and has a commanding presence. It is a type of tree in which its aesthetic properties are more than enough to sum up its regality. Planted right outside of Phillips Hall, it has become somewhat of a monument itself.  Sitting underneath it has helped me many times relieve stress while doing homework, or accomplish light reading. Its very presence is a psychological remedy.  And yet there is still far more to it, scientifically and aesthetically. Both these qualities ultimately attribute to its overwhelming beauty. Having lived in Chapel Hill for nearly all my life, I was not really impressed by the campus because nothing was new to me. Well, that is until I laid eyes on the Magnolia tree, among other things. The combination of a dense dark trunk, long strong branches, glossy green leaves, wooded cone-like fruit speckled with bright-scarlet seeds and beautiful white flowers dotting the tree is something you simply cannot conceive. It is just there already, designed by nature. Regarding its characteristics, the Magnolia is a large tree capable of growing to a height of about 80 ft. Its thick trunk averages around 2-3 feet in width and its leaves can grow up to 10 inches in length. Lastly, the flowers blossom in the form of a saucer, which spread out and are 6-8 inches wide. Everything about this tree is excessive in size, which makes its splendor all the more apparent. Nevertheless it is also very delicate and patience is a virtue when it comes to the Magnolia. It is different than most, and has its quirks. As an evergreen tree, its leaves remain green, but it drops leaves 365 days a year. At the same time, it has an incredibly slow growth rate. Some trees’ growth rate can be rated on a numerical scale, but the Magnolia’s slow growth rate cannot easily be quantified.

The flowers in particular are of a pure white color, no blotchy stains or discoloration. The petals are soft, which contrast the coarse, thick green leaves. However, the Magnolia, like any delicate beauty, does not come in just one variety. The flowers of the other Magnolias come in different colors, including red, pink, purple, or yellow. And with each color comes a different fragrance emanating from the flower. Indeed, there are over two-hundred species of the Magnolia, spread broadly across the south. It is native to the southeastern area of the United States, ranging from North Carolina to Florida, and can also be found in parts of Texas. Its diversity is followed by many other aspects that set it aside from other trees, leaving it in a rather exclusive, or “aristocratic” club. Perhaps this may come off as pretentious, but I feel its beauty warrants every ounce of attention. For instance, who would have thought that the flowers, which often are pollinated by either butterflies or bees in other tree species, are in fact pollinated by beetles?  The flowers themselves produce an incredible fragrance, yet they produce no nectar. Instead, they produce large amounts of pollen, which the beetle uses for food. In fact, the Magnolia tree has developed a very intricate and discrete relationship with its surrounding, allowing it to preserve itself in nature and to be spread across the nation.

The brown cones are an oddity themselves but unique because of the attractive bright seeds and the way they attract flocks of birds. I knew immediately they must have been food for the birds but I was interested in their seed type, and what other purpose they served if their seeds were so easily exposed. Additionally, I noticed that the seeds appeared to attract only certain types of birds, and so I wanted to further explore this observation. What I found out was more than I had expected. For such a stationary object, the Magnolia’s complexities are astounding. The seeds are well-hidden within the cone, which is actually a fruit. The fruit harbors a home for these attractive red seeds to grow. However, their vibrant color is not their sole attribute. The bright coating around them is actually made of fleshy aril that is rich in fat. When the time is right, they are exposed to birds for consumption. I found out that songbirds are especially drawn to these seeds because of the rich fat stored in them. This makes the seed a fantastic energy source, kind of like a protein bar for birds. The birds consume the seeds, which allow them to migrate south. In turn, the bird is able to spread the seeds across the southern parts of the states. The tree makes the most efficient use of the songbirds due to the birds’ incredible flight speed. In essence, the beauty of the tree is not only being spread, but preserved by sectoring out which birds are best suited for the job. On my part, I serve no purpose in the distribution of the seeds—I am merely a spectator. However, for whatever reason, I too am also drawn to the scarlet allure of these tiny gems.

For me, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is a symbol of pride in the southern parts of the U.S. (if not the nation) due to its rich history, heritage, achievements and splendor. Superlatives aside, I’m serious; I truly feel this way. For the same reason I am staunchly proud to be a student of UNC-CH, I am just as proud to boast the magnificence of this tree. This is not hubris. Rather, it is a genuine display of affection. The Magnolia’s adaptability to climate and soil has made it possible for its growth throughout the nation, making it an ornamental tree in other parts of the country. But the heart of it lies in the southeastern part of the nation. Growing up in Chapel Hill, I feel I may very well have grown up with trees. The connection I instinctively made with it is has finally been realized after this class. The trees decorate the campus and the campus shelters the trees. My contribution here is minimal at best—all I can do is admire. 

Class of 2014

Major: Chemistry

Hometown: Chapel Hill, NC



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