1237 Magnolia acuminataCommon Names: cucumber tree, cucumbertree, cucumbertree magnolia Family: Magnoliaceae (magnolia Family)
This deciduous magnolia is the largest of the North American magnolias. Cucumber tree grows in a conical shape 70-100 ft (21-30 m) tall, and can have a trunk diameter at breast height of 3-4 ft (1 m). Trees grown in the open will have long, sweeping lower limbs that may reach out and touch the ground. Upper branches trend upward and the tree forms a symmetrical pyramid with a pointed crown. In forest grown specimens the trunk is often free of branches for its lower half. The leaves are large, 5-10 in (13-25 cm) long, and about half as wide, alternate, dark green above and whitish fuzzy beneath. They are broadest near the base and have pointed (acuminate) tips. The leaves turn grayish brown to pale yellow before dropping in autumn. In late spring cucumber trees produce yellowish green upright cup shaped flowers around 3.5 in (9 cm) across. They have nine tepals (six petals and three sepals). The flowers are almost odorless and easily overlooked amongst the similarly colored young leaves. The fruit (technically an aggregate) resembles a 2-3 in (5-8 cm) cucumber, starting out green and maturing to a purplish brown with pinkish red follicles on the surface. When ripe, a single bright red seed falls away from each follicle and hangs by a slender white thread for a while before dropping to the ground.
There are dozens of named selections but many may be hard to find. ‘Golden Glow’ is noted for its bright yellow flowers. ‘Butterflies’ has intense yellow flowers that are larger and have more tepals than the species. ‘Miss Honeybee’ has larger, pale yellow flowers.
Magnolia acuminata var. subcordata (yellow cucumber tree) is a naturally occurring, but rare, variety that is smaller, to just 25 ft (8 m) tall, has smaller leaves, to just 6 in (15 cm) long, and conspicuous yellow flowers. This variety is known in nature from only a few counties in Georgia but has become a popular ornamental and several selections are available in the nursery trade.
There are many hybrids between cucumber tree, yellow cucumber tree and/or other species of magnolia, especially the Chinese species, Yulan magnolia, M. denudata (formerly known as M. heptapeta) and lily magnolia, M. liliiflora. More than a hundred selections have been named.
Cucumber tree is native to eastern North America, from Ontario and New York, south to Louisiana and barely into Florida, where it is known from just two counties in the Panhandle. Cucumber tree has the largest range of any of the American magnolias, but beyond the Appalachian mountains, the distribution is spotty and discontinuous. Cucumber tree is a component of Appalachian mixed deciduous forests where it is often scattered (rarely common) among other forest hardwoods including white oak (Quercus alba), tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), American beech (Fagus grandiflora), white ash (Fraxinus americana ) and several species of hickory (Carya spp.). Cucumber tree grows best on lower slopes, valleys and along stream banks. This is a popular ornamental and shade tree commonly grown in the eastern U.S. and in Europe.
Cucumber tree grows rapidly on fertile, moist, slightly acidic soils, but also is tolerant of calcareous soils. Light: Cucumber tree is intolerant of shade, even as a seedling. It can take partial shade, but does best in full sun. Moisture: Cucumber tree does best in a moist but well drained soil. It does not tolerate extended drought or waterlogged soils. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 8. There are seven tree sized magnolias native to North America but cucumber tree is the most hardy, capable of surviving in protected positions even in zone 3. There are seven tree sized magnolias native to North America but cucumber tree is the most hardy, capable of surviving in protected positions even in zone 3. Propagation:You can forget about starting magnolias from cuttings. The seeds may lie dormant for two or more years before germinating, but seedlings grow fast in good soil and full sun. Cucumber trees can begin flowering by age 20 or 25 and live up to 150 years or so. Most of the cultivars are grafted onto seedlings of the species.
Cucumber tree has a handsome symmetrical form and large tropical looking leaves. It is a standout as a specimen or shade tree in larger landscapes, and is often planted in parks, golf courses, botanical gardens and estates. The elongate flower buds are silvery bluish green, and the yellowish flowers are attractive, but inconspicuous.
The variety, yellow cucumber tree, is quite a bit smaller, and often more like a shrub than a tree. It is suitable for smaller landscapes. Yellow cucumber tree has prettier flowers which open earlier in the season and are therefore easier to appreciate than those of the nominate variety.
The wood is durable, but soft and weak. It is easily worked and has been used for crates, furniture, paneling and flooring. Cucumber tree seeds are eaten by small mammals and birds.
There are seven genera in the family Magnoliaceae, and these occur only in temperate eastern Asia, eastern North America and temperate South America. Among the 200 or so species are 125 species in the Magnolia genus, as well as tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and banana shrub (Michelia figo). The Magnoliaceae is one of the most ancient of flowering plant families. Fossil magnolia flowers from the Tertiary (100 million years ago) are virtually identical to flowers of living species. Not only that, the tiny beetles (Nitidulidae spp.) that are the principal pollinators of magnolias also have remained virtually unchanged since the Tertiary.
The various species of Magnolia are popular ornamental landscape trees and shrubs and there are hundreds of hybrids and cultivars descending from many of them.
You can always recognize a member of the magnolia family by the little ring that encircles the stem where a leaf is attached.
Steve Christman 2/28/15