1-7 June 2003
Installment #175---Visitor #Web Site Counter

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When we left South Carolina for grad school in Minnesota, we learned what cold and snow were really all about. During four very long winters studying Blue Jays in the North Star State, we suffered while numerous records were broken for snow depth, low temperatures, and consecutive days of snow cover. Shivering all the while, we dreamed of moving back to the Carolina Piedmont, and as our last field season drew to a close, we contacted a realtor with an all-too-specific wish list of what we wanted in the way of York County property: a livable dwelling within our price range; several acres of land; water (either stream or pond); some established trees and shrubs; and--as a true sign we were coming back home to much warmer climes--a Southern Magnolia in the front yard. As impossible as it might seem, real estate agent Marge Van Remmen found a listing with all these criteria, so we quickly closed on the house and 11-acre property in 1982, moved in, named our new residence Hilton Pond, and sat back to admire the magnolia tree in the front yard. The rest--as they say--is history.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Southern Magnolias, one of which is blooming this week at Hilton Pond Center, are well-named. Historically found in the Coastal Plain of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Gulf Coast states at elevations of less than 600', they have been planted extensively well beyond their range--often with mixed success. Some cultivars apear to be more cold tolerant and can survive as far north as Philadelphia.

Southern Magnolia is the state flower of Louisiana (whose state tree is Bald Cypress) and Mississippi (for which the magnolia serves double duty). This is one species that seldom grows in monoculture; instead it seems to do best when scattered among American Beech, Sweetgum, and White Ash in rich soils that are well-drained but moist; it also is a component of old Loblolly/Shortleaf Pine forests. The Southern Magnolia tolerates shade when young, patiently standing by for an old tree to fall and open up a hole in the sky toward which the little magnolia can grow. The mixed woods around Hilton Pond are full of spindly magnolia saplings awaiting just such a calamity.

Southern Magnolia, whose widespread family (Magnoliaceae) is named for early Dutch botanist Peter Magnol, also does very well as a specimen plant in the middle of an open space, where it will assume a raggedy pyramidal shape (below left) and regularly reaches heights up to 90 feet. The trunk of a large tree is usually straight, up to three feet in diameter, and covered by rather smooth gray bark that may exfoliate in small patches (below right); sprouts can occur almost anywhere along the trunk, from ground level upward. Trunks of older trees are often coated with a heavy layer of gray-green crustose and foliose lichens. Not much grows under a big Southern Magnolia, since the 6"-10" leathery leaves--shiny dark green above and velvety brown beneath (above left)--cast such dense shade; the foliage, slow to rot when it finally does die and falls earthward, also helps choke out any competing vegetation. Mature Southern Magnolias are largely unaffected by wildfire because their bark is not very flammable, and they seldom succumb to hurricanes because of their deep tap root. These are two necessary adaptations for a species that hopes to do well in the Low Country.


The sweet-smelling saucer-shaped blossom of Southern Magnolia is among the largest flowers native to North America, reaching 12" or more in breadth--hence its technical name of Magnolia grandiflora. The bloom forms inside a pepper-shaped bud (below left) that opens to form 9 to 14 petals that are fleshy and creamy white. These gradually unfold to reveal an unusual structure that at first glance looks like a pineapple (top photo). At its apex is a crown of greenish-gold carpels that are the female parts of the flower; around their base are numerous rings of white and purple-bottomed pollen-bearing stamens. After fertilization occurs-- usually when bees or scarab beetles bring in pollen from another flower--the stamens fall off and sometimes collect in the concave petals. As stamens drop, the styles--tips of the carpels--shrivel up to reveal an underlying cone-shaped structure (below right) covered with shiny golden fuzz; a hard dark ring beneath it is pitted by a scar left by each stamen.


As summer marches on, the magnolia cone increases in length (4"-6") and width and takes on a tan or pinkish hue. By September, the carpels swell and eventually burst, each releasing a scarlet half-inch-long seed that contrasts brilliantly against the deep green magnolia leaves (below right). The colorful fruit is held in place by a semi-elastic silken thread that often allows a seed to dangle from the cone and sway in the wind-- advertising its presence even more. It doesn't take long for neighborhood birds to notice and swallow the seeds and eventually deposit them elsewhere in their droppings; Gray Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks, and Virginia Opossums are also important disseminators of magnolia seeds, as their autumn scats will sometimes attest. Once the magnolia's fruit is released the empty cones darken, become hard and woody, and eventually drop to the ground, where various fungi (below left) get to work decomposing them and turning them back into valuable nutrients for the parent magnolia tree that grows overhead.

Southern Magnolias--also called Bullbay to differentiate them from Sweetbay or Swampbay, aka the Virginia Magnolia--are cut for lumber. Hard, dense, and rather difficult to work, the wood is sometimes used in furniture. Knowing how poor our society is at recycling paper products, it pains us to know that timbering companies also harvest Southern Magnolias to supply the pulp industry. Fortunately, the species sprouts easily from the stump, so when left alone a tree may recover after loggers have moved on. The national champion Southern Magnolia is a specimen in Smith County, Mississippi that towers an incredible 122 feet in the air and has a trunk six feet in diameter! We doubt this behemoth is a stump sprout.

Although Hilton Pond Center is not within the natural distribution of the Southern Magnolia, we're very glad this "fairest flower of the south" survives locally, albeit far from the Coastal Plain. This week, as we sniffed the fragrant blossoms of our largest magnolia tree, we thought again of those frigid grad school winters in Minnesota, had a sudden cold chill despite balmy 80-degree temperatures, and thanked our lucky stars we were back in the Carolina Piedmont where we can comfotably admire our Southern Magnolia all year long.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Magnolia cone/fruit photo © Jack Scheper &

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1-7 June 2003


Ruby-throated Hummingbird--5
Northern Cardinal--1
House Finch--5

* = New species for 2003

3 species
11 individuals

44 species
582 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
42,696 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (7)
08/13/99--after 5th year female
08/18/00--4th year female
04/11/01--after 3rd year male
05/25/02--after 2nd year female
07/08/02--2nd year male
08/09/02--2nd year female
09/03/02--2nd year male

Northern Cardinal (2)
07/19/99--5th year female
07/08/02--2nd year male

Carolina Wren (1)
06/30/01--3rd year male

Eastern Towhee (1)
07/17/02--2nd year male

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the


--A Black Ratsnake that regularly patrols the attic of the old farmhouse at Hilton Pond Center somehow found a 3/4" gap in the ceiling right above a pillar on which a pair of House Finches had built a nest. Sharp-eyed Garry Hilton noticed the snake inching down toward the nest on 1 June and alerted us in time for us to encourage it to withdraw back into the ceiling, after which we plugged the hole. Three days later, we were present as the five nestlings fledged, and were quick enough to grab four of them for banding (photo above) before sending them back out for their parents to train.

--Another 2" of precipitation during the weekly period interfered with bird netting and banding activities at the Center.

--This week was the first time we've seen a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird recaptured on 2 June 2003 after being banded on 13 August 1999; she's now an after- fifth-year bird. There have been three complete field seasons since banding without her being recaptured in a trap or net at Hilton Pond Center. This is also the first time we've had a RTHU go that long between original banding and first recapture, and we can only wonder where she's been in the meantime.

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including all articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.

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