a botanical whodunit: r.i.p., yellow magnolia

dead magnolia being carted awayI 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.

Butterflies magnoliaAbout 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.)

Pinus bungeana with sapsucker damageThe bird is where the conspiracy theory began, because two trees—both pines–that used to live within 15 feet of this deadly spot had been the sapsucker’s prior favorites, and they are both long gone.

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.)

Magnolia stump shows dark tissue insideMaybe 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?

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, My Tiny Plot. I find all of this stuff interesting, despite the loss. Sounds like you do too!

      Interesting, Elizabeth. And yes, I almost hung an “RIP” sign on the magnolia that day, but I thought, oh well, it’s raining and I don’t have a waterproof sign and what the heck? There wasn’t time to remove it in advance…it literally croaked a day or two before, I swear.

  1. frederique jennette says:

    So sorry about your tree; I have one of those too and it bloomed profusely this year.
    However, I shall keep an eye on it as it shot up incredibly fast when I first planted it years ago???? I also lost a lovely flowering peach tree last summer – I think due to that vertillicum disease from what I read on your blog? Anyway, I pulled it out last week and it had hardly any root system.

  2. Pat says:

    I hope everything is fine up in your neck of the woods. I just saw some nasty weather going by your town, be safe.

  3. Elizabeth Gall says:

    I saw your tree on the Open Day and was sad…

    I was reminded of the 250 year-old Twin Oaks in a field north of Sharon CT. They were the focus of a major view shed for our Town. The first went down in a storm last year. (heartbreaking, but understandable.) Then, just a few days ago, the second went completely down on a quiet night. No warning…Unfathomable! The only explanation I’ve heard so far is that both grew from acorns from the same tree and had the same genetic make-up. They both hit the end of their programmed life length at essentially the same time.

    Nature makes one humble.

  4. susan says:

    A few years ago, I lost a very large oak in my yard. It just layed down across the driveway with its roots up. Now I have to rethink all the plants in that part of the yard. All the shade plants had to be moved. I miss my oak but she has kept us warm for serveral winters and some of the wood is in board form waiting to be made into something wonderfulbefitting my old friend.

  5. Beth Urie says:

    Great saving possibility – pumpkins! Sorry for your loss. I spent the weekend denuding a 25 yr old Robusta juniper to eliminate all the awful cedar-apple rust – for the sake of the crab apples that lost all their leaves by Labor Day last summer – the first year I’d noticed the severity. Sure enough, all those orange globs are bright in the pile under a black tarp this morning after 1.5″ rain last night – hope the storms spared you any damage. I’m waiting to see if the Robusta greens back up, but if the apples have issues this summer, the juniper will get girdled. It now makes a very interesting garden-art tree – display for something I haven’t determined yet. And, more sunlight where it will actually benefit … love your solution.

  6. Sheri says:

    I feel your pain, Margaret. I lost the beloved viburnum next to my patio this spring. Quite suddenly, this hearty, dependable bloomer of 10+ springs gave up the ghost. I suspect verticillum wilt too. For now, I’ve placed a homemade willow tower on the spot once inhabited by the viburnum, and I’ve begun searching for a fantastic annual vine to climb on it–in memory of…

  7. Joyce A says:

    Omg my Star Magnolia did the very same thing this spring. I was so sad so know how you feel. It too was a favorite of the yellow bellied sapsucker.

  8. Maggie says:

    Could it be possible that the bird was actually searching for bugs and that they contributed to the demise? When I’ve looked carefully at winter bird damage on my fruit trees I’ve tended to find signs of sub-bark insects. The bird damage was the “canary in the coal mine” warning of worse to come….

  9. i had the same thing happen last year to my elizabeth magnolia. It was 18 years old and six other yellow magnolias all died the same way. Same exact thing as yours covered with buds, but never opened. No sapsuckers here, no wilt. we decided it was the stress of the previous years hurricane and the dry warm winter. So sorry you lost yours this year as well. a few of us had one or two trunks (on our multi-trunked trees) that are shooting a few leaves out of their bodies, but this last hurricane killed those struggling shoots off as well.
    Eastern Long Island, south fork.

  10. Deborah B says:

    I lost my Dr. Merrill magnolia this year. It was 11 years old, and starting to get some nice height on it. The third of it toward the house bloomed nicely, and there were buds on the rest, so I thought those were just delayed a bit. Then the third still alive leafed out, and still nothing from the rest. I took a closer look and there are big cracks or cankers in the trunk down near the ground. I might try just trimming out the 2 big parts that are dead, but the trunk damage affects all of it. I think the whole thing is a goner. A friend of mine nearby lost a magnolia this winter too. Bad year for it.

  11. joan packer says:

    Hi Margaret,
    So sorry about Butterflies. I have one planted near a lovely 25yr. old Linden tree that got what looks to be verticulum wilt on one of the main trunks. It grew very fast to a large size in a somewhat damp semi-shady part of my lower garden. The arborist identified wilt, cut off the dead trunk down to where no sign of wilt. The other side leafed out well this spring, but don’t know what will happen to it in the end.
    I have gardened on this two acres in Farmington, CT for 33yrs and not seen this wilt before. My magnolias OK so far.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joan. Someone else wrote in to say hers died this year too! Crazy, right? Sorry about your linden. Great scent when in bloom.

      Welcome, Maggie. Good questions. It’s all very interesting, isn’t it?

  12. Sarah says:

    I agree, thanks for the poem! I think this year I might be grieving a tree that has suffered Bronze Birch Borer during the last season. It is fruiting like crazy and its bark is a disaster. To make it worse, it was a Christmas gift from my parents a few years back. I feel for you, loosing a favorite tree.

  13. Jane says:

    Good morning Margaret,
    I was interested in you chat about Magnolia’s. I planted a yellow one about 8 years ago and this year was the first time it ever bloomed and quite well! It’s had some rough years with dear, but a nice looking 10 foot bush now. It is not as big around as the one you had to cut. Should I be concerned that it is going to die?

    1. margaret says:

      If it has good growth now and is healthy looking leaves and now even flowering, why worry? I assume you mean deer have been chewing on it? Best not to let that continue…can be exhausting for the poor plant to lose all its growth to nibbling.

  14. Matt Mattus says:

    Fairwell sweet ‘Butterflies”. I have a love/hate relationship with my yellow Magnolia ( this time, the variety ‘Goldfinch’. Like your beloved ‘Butterflies’, my yellow magnolia also grew far too quickly, only to eventually provide too much shade for my part of the garden near the greenhouse. I know that it will need to come down, for it also shades some raised beds. My poor judgement in site placement, I admit. Two Octobers ago, it snapped in half during the freak Snowtober snow storm, and I thought that nature had taken care of the deed for me, but it recovered with vigor. Now, I need to think about perhaps importing some sapsuckers ( which would thrill me, as we don’t have them here in our central MA woodland), as Sapsuckers invite early migratory birds like Ruby Throated Hummingbirds and Orioles to drink sap before any flower nectar is available in late February and March, but alas, I will have to bite the bullet and grab thy chainsaw before the year is over. That is – unless I wait for it to bloom, one more time next spring, but then here we go again.
    For what it’s worth, I too lost a beloved tree this spring for not apparent reason – my golden full-moon Maple,Acer shirasawanum nearly 20 years old.

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