The flowers of Bracken's magnolia turn heads with their exotic beauty.

What Does a Bracken Tree Look Like?

by Teo Spengler

Imagine a flame-shaped, evergreen shrub that happens to be as tall as your house. Think of leaves long and slightly curving like downhill racing sleds for tiny elves. Add to this image fragrant flowers resembling Japanese origami that open into white saucers bigger than your hand. That is what a Brackens "Brown Beauty" magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora "Bracken's Brown Beauty") looks like.

An Accidental History

Magnolias have been around for centuries, but the gorgeous magnolia species Bracken's "Brown Beauty" is a relatively recent addition to the clan. In 1967, enthusiast Ray Bracken discovered a magnolia seedling on his South Carolina farm unlike any that he had seen before, and the rest is history. Today the tree is a favorite magnolia species among horticulturists, according to the U.S. Forest Service, praised not only for its romantic good looks but also for its flexible growth habits.

Upright Central Trunk

All magnolias have a certain Southern charm, but Bracken's "Brown Beauty" stands apart with its dense growth habit and standout flowers that must be seen (and sniffed) to be believed. The cultivar's trunk is central and erect, and its numerous branches are shorter, more slender and more tightly packed than the average magnolia. It can rise to 50 feet tall, so take care where you plant this beauty.

Sensual Leaves

The leaves of Bracken's "Brown Beauty" are as interesting in color as in texture. Growing to 8 inches long, the oblong leaves appear glossy and dark green when viewed from above and cinnamon brown from below. They are leathery to the touch and the underside fuzz feels more like fur than flower. The leaves grace the tree year round, making it as pleasing a vision on New Year's Eve as it is during a midsummer barbecue.

Elegant Blossoms

Some flowers smell far sweeter than their insignificant appearance leads the sniffer to expect; others, despite voluptuous and vivid petals, provide no fragrance whatsoever. Bracken's magnolia cultivar delights both the eye and the nose with its creamy, 8-inch wide blossoms that appear in late spring and sporadically throughout the summer. The buds open their waxy petals in origami shapes, then the flowers mature into huge ivory saucers. At all stages, the magnolia flowers fill the entire garden with a sweet, romantic fragrance that brings to mind white lace and loving promises.

Beyond Good Looks

Above and beyond its role as ambassador of beauty, Bracken's "Brown Beauty" is a specimen to please many gardeners. It blooms happily in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 10A, making it more cold hardy than other magnolia grandiflora cultivars, and accepts full sun or part shade. This tolerant tree prefers well-draining, acidic soil but tolerates clay or wet soil as well.

About the Author

From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. World traveler, professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.

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