Sometime you might find yourself walking through a mountainous forest and see a tree that looks a lot like a tulip poplar— but not quite. The tree is nice and straight with very few lower limbs, but the leaves and bark are different. If that’s the case, you might be looking at a cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminate.) The cucumber tree, also known as a cucumber magnolia, is a member of the Magnolia family. This tree grows larger than most magnolias, and has a home range that extends from the southern Appalachians north to southern Ontario. The cucumber tree is most common in the Southern Appalachian Mountains where it grows alongside white oak, yellow birch, tulip poplar, shagbark hickory, beech, hemlock, and red spruce. It does not tolerate drought or high temperate very well, so it is normally found where micro climatic conditions are cool, such as in ravines or the north side of a mountain.

The Cucumber tree has a simple, elliptical deciduous leaf that turns bright yellow in the fall. The bark is furrowed and dark grey to brown. Unlike most magnolias, the flower of this tree is not showy; it is small and green, but very fragrant. The unripe seedpod is green and warty, much like a small cucumber from which the tree gets its name. This pod turns a pinkish red when the seeds have ripened. Cucumber tree grows quickly, and can attain a fairly large size— 100 feet tall, and about 30 inches in diameter on a good site. The wood of this tree looks very much like the wood of tulip poplar.

The cucumber tree is not very numerous in nature; it is usually found in small groups. This tree has been cultivated, but it does not tolerate soil compaction or drought very well. An open grown tree has a large crown and casts a lot of shade, so it is sometimes planted in park settings. In Canada, this tree is considered to be a rare species.

Article by FCFCDB

Page header photo credit: - Boyer and McDowell

Nature note for 6/12/21