Flowers of the Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla, below) are ten inches across (at least), though I could not possibly hold the branch and measure at the same time. Unfortunately, only two branches of this very tall tree remain low enough that I can reach overhead to pull down to see and smell the flowers close up. Holding the branch in one hand and camera in the other is all the hands I have.
Leaves of bigleaf often stretch to two feet or longer tip to tip, and while both grow quite large, the deciduous tree cannot be confused with the very common, evergreen Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora, below) with smaller and glossier leaves. Bigleaf magnolia is rarely found in garden centers, or even from specialty mail order nurseries growing smaller magnolias with more colorful blooms.
This tree was found standing alone and left behind in the field of a Tennessee tree grower thirty years ago, almost certainly grown by mistake since there was little market for this relatively unknown magnolia. I hardly knew of the tree at the time, but saw the huge leaves and knew it was different, and that this one must be mine. Moments later the deal had been worked out, and it was planted several months later in the side yard of my new garden.
At the time the side yard was half sunny, backed to the southeast by a sliver of forest, but open for fifty feet to the house. This sunny gap has long since been shaded by the bigleaf magnolia and other deciduous and evergreen magnolias, dogwoods, and a serviceberry. the combined shade has cost the bigleaf magnolia its lower branches, with most flowers far overhead. Today, oakleaf hydrangeas, hostas, and hellebores are planted to fill the void beneath bigleaf’s substantial canopy.