I OFTEN SAY how the only thing I know with certainty about gardening, even after 30 years of experience, is this: Things will die. Just before my open garden day last week, a giant yellow magnolia called ‘Butterflies’ in the front yard decided quite unceremoniously that it was time to go. R.I.P., ‘Butterflies.’ But what felled you, I wonder? It was all so sudden–before I knew it, you were on the ground, and being carted away (above).
I’ve always thought of this particular magnolia as perhaps a bit too energetic, and somewhat unrefined. It shot up fast a decade or so ago when I planted it, and never seemed to stop, assuming an ever-widening domain for itself. One of its parents is the very-fast-growing cucumber tree magnolia, Magnolia acuminata, so probably no surprise; the other parent, M. denudata, is no slowpoke, either.
At the time of its death, the tree was more than 20 feet tall and about 15 feet wide, with no signs of stopping. Or so I thought.
About three weeks ago, the flowers on one lower and one upper branch opened on schedule—but not the rest. The tree had positively covered itself in flower buds last year, holding countless furry silver beauties all winter long. (Maybe I should have been suspicious: It had produced many more buds than I’d ever seen, and often a woody plant in trouble will madly go about trying to reproduce, and set tons of seed.)
When I investigated, all the unopened buds were desiccated and many twigs were growing brittle, the bark darkening from the tips inward.
But the plant had been lush, and healthy-looking right through last fall. Again: more on the side of too vigorous than weak in any way.
There is no way to know what happened without lab tests, but as with any mystery, I immediately began to develop theories—two, in particular, one of them part of a conspiracy theory, actually.
The tree did have one issue: yellow-bellied sapsucker(s). Like various trees in the garden, this magnolia was a favorite of this insistent bird, who had opened its characteristically perfectly gridded series of holes in its bark over the years, like the ones in the photo of damaged pine bark, below. Not good—but the magnolia didn’t seem to mind. (Well, until it died.)
You may recall the day I lost my lacebark pine, Pinus bungeana, in 2008. In that case, the sapsucker was the cause, because he just kept at it, until the holes were so large the dots almost connected (the bird’s handiwork in process, above). Large portions of bark were eventually lost, not just disfiguring the pine but interrupting the plant’s vascular system, killing all the wood above those wounds.
Other trees here that the sapsucker has favored have displayed their badges of abuse for decades without a hiccup; sapsuckers don’t always kill things, since mostly their holes are shallow and more unsightly than fatal.
That was the case with the magnolia—lots of shallow holes, no bark loss or loosening.
Because those both are pines, my other theory on what killed my magnolia—and how it might be part of a three-tree conspiracy—gets all shot to hell. Looking at the cut sides of the wood my beloved neighbor, Herb, gradually brought to the ground with his trusty chainsaw, I saw a lot of unhealthy-looking darkening (photo of the stump, below). Could it be verticillium wilt? (This Morton Arboretum factsheet details the disease.)
Maybe with the magnolia—but not with the pines. Pines don’t get the soil-borne fungal woe called verticillium wilt, it turns out.
I won’t know what killed my magnolia unless I send in some remaining live wood for testing, and I’m not even sure I care. Here’s what I do know for sure (besides that things will die):
I’m not planting another tree in the apparent sweet spot of my local sapsucker, and where there also may be verticillium in the soil. That newly bare “bed” (quite sunny now that it’s minus one tree) is looking just right for something quite different:
This year’s pumpkins and squash.
Oh, and maybe I know one more thing: It’s a good day for me to recite Geoffrey Charlesworth’s splendid poem, “Why Did My Plant Die?