Ask the Gardener

Ask the Gardener: Umbrella magnolia causes a stink

CorrespondentMay 10, 2013 

The umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) has a strong scent.

UNKNOWN — Courtesy of L.A. Jackson

I have a strange, small tree at the edge of the woods in my yard that has big leaves and grew large white flowers this spring and really stunk! One of my neighbors thought it was a magnolia, but aren’t magnolias evergreen and since when did their flowers stink?

Bobbi Williams

Chapel Hill

Big leaves and stinky flowers, eh? Welcome to the world of the umbrella magnolia ( Magnolia tripetala). Unlike the iconic Southern magnolia ( Magnolia grandiflora), which has evergreen foliage and blossoms with a rich, pleasing fragrance, this native cousin drops its leaves in the fall (there are other deciduous magnolias, by the way) and produces creamy white, 6- to 8-inch diameter spring flowers with a scent that, as best as I can describe it, could be labeled “spicy sweat sock.” In spite of this, if you have room – the umbrella magnolia can stretch beyond 30 feet tall – it will make an interesting addition to the landscape with an open habit fanned by its long, exotic-looking leaves, which can reach up to 2 feet in length.

Stay away, deer

Besides a fence, how can we keep deer out of our garden? We live in a suburban neighborhood with woods at the back of our property.

Marie Marus


I have used a liquid deer repellent from the Chapel Hill company I Must Garden ( for a few years, and have found it to be effective for many of my needs. Although it is supposed to shield plants for up to three months after application, after a hard rain I can’t resist spraying on more. And even when it doesn’t rain for a while, I usually reapply the repellent every four weeks or so to keep the deer-be-gone scent fresh.

If you don’t mind things getting a little exciting in your backyard, do a Web search on “deer motion detector.” Many new products will flash, spray or honk Bambi into making a fast exit out of the garden. Gardeners in the know report that the detectors hooked up to hoses to squirt away deer seem to be the most effective.

And for anyone who might have noticed that I didn’t mention electric fences, well, they will indeed work against deer, too, but I’m not going to recommend them in writing because the first time someone’s kid or pet gets wrapped up in one of these hot wires will probably be the last time I’d be allowed to write this column!

Where’s the red okra?

I’m in Cary and cannot find the red okra you have suggested for the garden in the past. Checked all big box and garden stores. Any suggestions on where to go?

John Olsen


Okra with pods dipped deeply in the red end of the spectrum aren’t the most common of selections, but both Park Seeds ( and Burpee ( sell such seeds online. Park offers the eye-catching Red Spray, while Burpee sells the beautiful Burgundy and popular Red Velvet. I’ve even seen Red Velvet seeds for sale on eBay!

Believe it or not, you still have time to order these seeds because okra won’t readily germinate until the soil has warmed up to at least 70 degrees. I usually wait until the second or third week of May to plant okra seeds, and because this hibiscus cousin typically takes just two months to mature, I have even planted it as late as the beginning of June.

Also keep in mind that, even when the soil is toasty enough for planting, okra seeds are like hard little BBs, and they usually won’t easily sprout without a bit of extra help. With this in mind, soak the seeds in water overnight just before planting.

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. Send your garden questions, including the city where you garden, to:

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