Josh Shaffer

Grand evergreen of the South laid low by snow

A towering magnolia suffered damage at the Capitol in downtown Raleigh. Like all evergreens, magnolias endure more hardship in storms thanks to ice collected by their leaves.
A towering magnolia suffered damage at the Capitol in downtown Raleigh. Like all evergreens, magnolias endure more hardship in storms thanks to ice collected by their leaves. jshaffer@newsobserver.com

With the last snowflake melted, the final ice patch liquefied, the pipes patched up and the power switched back on, Raleigh rubbed two weeks of bleak weather out of its eyes and noticed a new casualty.

Our magnolia trees, the most Southern of all evergreens, had snapped under their winter weight, bent double by the coating on their wandering branches.

All around the city, their limbs sat piled on the curb, waiting for the yard-waste truck. Their leaves scattered over the sidewalks and their pods lay discarded on the lawns.

Deprived of shade, a thousand pitchers of lemonade will now go unpoured. A thousand paperbacks will lie unread. A thousand naps will remain untaken.

“They’re brittle trees,” said Andrew Wharton from Everett Tree Service. “They take a beating.”

News of their suffering hurts because magnolias are a favorite of mine, their glossy leaves and peach-fuzz pods more a symbol of this state to me than the pine, which – let’s just say it – is a tad plain. Wide-ranging and showy, the magnolia is the arboreal equivalent of the seersucker suit.

These flowering trees inspire songs about good-time frolicking (“Sugar Magnolia”), songs about racial murder (“Strange Fruit”), movies involving a plague of frogs (“Magnolia”) and movies starring Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts that take place in a Louisiana beauty parlor and rank just above getting the mumps on my list of ways to pass a pleasant afternoon (“Title Redacted”). Short of the cactus, I can’t think of any flora that causes more of a creative spark.

In floral circles, the magnolia stands for hardiness, hence the term “Steel Magnolia,” a nickname applied to sturdy Southern women who weather all brands of adversity. Hunt around on Web sites that connect flowers with human qualities, and believe me, there are many, and you’ll see the magnolia associated with perseverance, dignity and good fortune. The purple flowers, I’m told, can send out vibrations that help align your truth and physical wholeness, which sounds kind of groovy.

But as an evergreen, they’re prone to breakage in ice storms because their leaves collect more ice. I drove around the streets of North Hills and saw plenty evidence of this. One broken-branch magnolia had drooped down into a lane of Yadkin Drive, and it slapped the roof of my pickup as I passed.

I talked to Richard Braham, professor of forestry at N.C. State University, and he said the magnolia’s original range probably only extended as far north as the coastal area around Wilmington, where ice storms are scarce. But those saucer-shaped leaves and flowers the size of soup bowls tempted ornamental growers far to the north and west, and now the tree is a naturalized citizen of the Piedmont.

“Nature was correct in limiting Southern magnolia to areas where ice storms are less common,” Braham said.

But even with yesterday’s limbs sawed off and stacked on the sidewalks, there is no reason to bend down and mourn.

“Here’s the neat thing about magnolias,” said Wharton. “They’ll grow back. They’re awesome. It’s an incredible tribute to Mother Nature.”

Remember those purple wholeness vibrations. Feel their warmth.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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