The hardwood that sets bees buzzing

Referring to the tree's large and showy blooms, botanists call magnolia the most splendid tree in America's forest. Early settlers, though, were more impressed with practicality than beauty. In the southern reaches of the Allegheny Mountains, these hardy pioneers collected the conelike fruits that followed magnolia's flowers, then steeped and distilled them into a medicine said to ward off "autumnal fever."

In far more ancient times, the magnolia and its blooms actually played a major role in the evolution of hardwood trees. It seems that conifers, the dominant tree in primeval woodlands, relied on the whims of the wind for pollination and survival. The magnolia, however, developed the trait of producing fragrant flowers that attracted voracious beetles. Then, just as bees do now, the beetles traveled from tree to tree, reliably pollinating and propagating the species.

Today, southern magnolia and cucumber, its cousin, represent a significant slice of the southeastern hardwood lumber industry. Marketed as magnolia, both woods find their way into the hands of knowing craftsmen.

You'll find cucumber (Magnolia acuminata) in mixed hardwood stands from southern New York to Florida, and west through Illinois to Iowa and Texas, Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) prefers the warmer areas of the range. Other species of magnolia, cultivated as ornamentals due to their blooms, may grow as far north as Wisconsin, but not in commercial quantities.

In the forest, cucumber can measure 100' tall and 4' or more in diameter. Its brown, deeply furrowed bark resembles that of elm. In late May and June, the tree sports greenish-yellow flowers hiding amidst its leaves. Southern magnolia, with its scaly, light gray-green bark, averages only 80' tall and seldom attains 3' in diameter. Fragrant, creamy white flowers, often 10" across, decorate its branches from June through October.

Similar in weight to cherry, the wood of both magnolias is light yellowish-brown and plain-featured. Sometimes, it contains purple-colored mineral streaks that add interest.

Magnolia has hard, fine-textured, straight-grained wood that some people might mistake for maple. And, like maple, magnolia works easily with power tools. It also won't warp when thin-sawed, turns well, and steam bends.

Because magnolia resists splitting and glues exceptionally well, you'll have no trouble joining it. You can plane the wood to a smooth surface that requires little sanding. Due to its fine grain, you won't have to use filler before finishing with your choice of paint, stain, or clear coatings.

Because magnolia remains stable after seasoning, it was once the standard wood for venetian-blind slats. That same stability makes it an acceptable substitute for yellow poplar. Cabinet carcases and furniture, toys, and interior trim, all fair well when made of this widely unappreciated wood. Use it for turned bowls and other food containers, too, because it doesn't impart a taste or carry an odor.

Where it's sold, magnolia usually costs the same as yellow poplar, about $1.25 per board foot. In the South and Southeast, you'll find it more readily available, and in boards up to 2" thick. Four-inch square turning stock also is marketed. Due to lack of demand, magnolia isn't made into veneer.

Illustration:Steve Schindler Photograph: Hopkins Associates