THE bull bay, or southern magnolia, is a truly magnificent tree, native to the south-eastern United States, from Virginia and North Carolina south to Florida and west through Alabama and Louisiana to Texas and beyond. It is the state flower of Louisiana and Mississippi and was used as an emblem by the Confederate Army in the American Civil War.
Just the names of those southern states evoke an image of sultry heat and lots of sunshine. In its native land, the bull bay, Magnolia grandiflora, can reach 30m tall, a large imposing tree with a heavy trunk and soaring branches, furnished from top to ground with large, broad, leathery evergreen leaves.
To see a specimen of this fine tree in a warm climate is to be impressed. Climbing high into the branches, it is like a cathedral of relative darkness, the air cooler than at ground level. This tree produces huge flowers in summer in its natural range and in countries of warm climate.
These can be as big as dinner plates, formed of thick waxy white petals as big as a hand. The petals are cupped around the central stigma and ring of pollen-carrying stamens, sheltering them and focusing the sunlight to encourage pollinating insects.
The flowers are very fragrant, filling the air near the tree with a sweet, very slightly lemony scent. It is not surprising that this tree impressed the early European colonisers of North America and it found its way to Europe in the early years of the 18th century.
It has succeeded very well in the warmer parts of Europe, France and Italy especially, not so well on the north-western fringes. It has long been grown in some old gardens in this country as a wall-trained tree, giving it the extra warmth of a large wall to encourage its growth.
Grown as a free-standing tree here, the bull bay struggles, particularly if shelter is not good. The leaves tend to become splotchy and pale, and a bit sparse on the branches. Flowers tend not to be plentiful and usually open quite late, beginning in late summer and continuing sporadically until frost destroys the last of them.
There are some varieties, such as 'Exmouth' that are supposed to be a bit more robust. Compared with the massive 30m it reaches in America, the bull bay struggles to reach five or six metres here and needs well-drained deep fertile soil.
But still, it is worth trying because when you bury your face into a large flower, the scent will transport you.