Plant(s) of the Week: Bigleaf magnolia & Umbrella tree

Magnolia tripetala. Photo by: Steven Severinghaus

The High Line's planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 500 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line's rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today. This week we share one of our gardeners' current favorites with you.

Magnolia macrophylla. Photo by: Gigi Altarejos

As a High Line gardener of five years, I've been lucky enough to care for the Philip A. & Lisa Maria Falcone Flyover between West 25th and West 27th Streets. Even luckier on those hot summer days to have a garden that receives plenty of shade. With the proximity of surrounding buildings, the Flyover receives more shade than any other part of the High Line. Shade gives us an opportunity to use woodland plants that offer a contrast to the wild prairie style planting that embodies the High Line.

Magnolia macrophylla in spring

Even though gardening on the High Line presents many unique challenges, I can always count on two things. Visitors inquiring about "that tree with the huge leaves" or "the banana tree" and their ensuing gasps when I reply, "Magnolia." Our magnolias, Magnolia macrophylla (bigleaf magnolia) and Magnolia tripetala (umbrella tree), are southeastern US natives. To the untrained eye these two species look identical, but a closer inspection reveals their differences.

I selected these magnolias for this week's blog post because winter is the season when the difference in the two species is most striking. The buds of Magnolia macrophylla are a beautiful tomentose (velvety) green while Magnolia tripetala buds are a sharply pointed smooth chocolate brown. Both species have valvate buds created by two large bud scales which protect next season's leaves and flowers. Valvate buds are a diagnostic feature of the Magnolia family (Magnoliaceae).

Magnolia tripetala in spring

In the wild, Magnolia macrophylla and Magnolia tripetala have a hardiness ranging from USDA zones 6 – 8. They do considerably well on the High Line which sits at the lowest part of their hardiness range. I would even argue that the High Line is a zone colder in the winter due to site exposure and an elevated bridge structure.

Plant Magnolia macrophylla and Magnolia tripetala in sheltered locations with protection from high winds with adequate space for a tree that can reach 50 – 65 feet at maturity.

Philip A. & Lisa Maria Falcone Flyover, on the High Line between West 25th and 27th Streets

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line's most important gardening projects.

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