How to Grow Cucumber Trees

Looking upwards from under a cumber magnolia.tree

Nancy Kennedy/Getty Images  

In This Article

When you have a wide area, with lots of room to plant, that is scorched by the sun and is calling for some shade, look no further than the cucumber magnolia tree or Magnolia acuminata.

This larger than life species gets its common name from the two to three-inch-long bump-covered fruit the tree yields. The species name acuminata is a botanical name that comes from the Latin for sharp, pointed, tapering. This refers to the shape of the tree’s leaves that have a more oblong and pointed shape than most magnolias. The differences that set this tree apart from others in its genus do not stop there. 

Unlike most magnolia species, the blooms on the cucumber tree are not extremely showy, and compared to their cousins they are pretty drab. The flowers are yellow-green and blossom after the foliage has already emerged later in the spring, once the more ostentatious trees have already put on their show. 

One striking difference you will not be able to miss is the immense size of the tree. Growing 50-80 feet tall with a spread about the same, this tree dwarves most other trees in the genus, save a few. For this reason, outside of the variety M. accuminata var. subcordata which grows to a much more manageable 30 feet, it has a multi-stemmed trunk and smaller yellow flowers that bloom when the foliage emerges early in the spring. This variety is responsible for the development of some of the extremely popular yellow-flowered hybrid types of magnolia.

The cucumber magnolia is often found by itself in open areas such as parks and golf courses and does not usually grow in stands in the wild. It makes an excellent shade tree in gardens or along drives in rural or suburban areas, but it does not thrive in urban areas as it does not tolerate pollution well. If you need a street tree, there are much better trees available for that job. This tree definitely has a niche.

One feature that admirers of the cucumber magnolia look forward to is the post-summer burst of color that the tree displays, starting as soon as the fruit pods ripen, and the seeds appear. The seeds show off a bright color that is strikingly different against the dark green of the leaves. As the seeds drop, the foliage’s hue shifts to a warm golden yellow that is a welcome contrast to the cool autumn skies.

The size, the muted spring colors, everything about this tree contrasts with the more ornamental species in its genus. 

Botanical Name Magnolia acuminata. 
Common Name  Cucumber Magnolia, Cucumber Tree 
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 50-80 feet
Sun Exposure  Full sun/ Part Shade
Soil Type Moist, well-drained soil
Soil pH Acidic 
Bloom Time April to May
Flower Color Greenish yellow
Hardiness Zones 4-8
Native Range Eastern United States and southern Canada
Toxicity Non-toxic

Cucumber Tree Care

In planting the cucumber magnolia your main concern is going to be space. This tree grows large, and it grows fast. The trunk itself can reach five feet in diameter. 

The soil you are planting it in will need to be deep as well, since the roots are expansive. This tree requires a considerable commitment of space, or it will not be a good fit and you and your tree will not be happy.

As mentioned above you may consider the smaller, M. accuminata var. subcordata, but it is not the same form and does not provide the same shade. If you are set and you have the room, then get ready to plant.

First, plan for where you want your tree. Consider the utilities and any infrastructure under the plant and think about future improvements. Measure out seventy feet and see what the possible shade will cover in the future. Is that acceptable? 

If so, test your soil and check for pH. The cucumber magnolia likes acidic soil. A soil with a high pH can be amended at the time of planting to fix issues, so do not worry too much about that.  

Once a site is chosen, dig a hole two to three times as wide as the root ball is deep and as deep as the container or burlap your tree came in. Before placing the tree, fill the hole with water and an acidifier, if needed. Place the tree into the hole and pack the soil down maintaining the tree in an upright position. Keep the tree watered and protect it from high winds and animals for the first year or two with stakes and trunk guards.

Light

The cucumber magnolia prefers full sun to part shade.

Soil

This tree needs to have moist, well-draining soil. It prefers soil that is slightly acidic, but it can tolerate some alkalinity.

Water

The tree needs watering when young until it is established. The mature tree is not at all drought tolerant and will suffer scorch quite readily in dry conditions.

Temperature and Humidity

This tree is native to the East coast along the Appalachian Mountains. It prefers moist cool weather but will tolerate some humidity. It is the most frost-tolerant of all the magnolias.

Fertilizer

The cucumber magnolia does not require feeding. If the soil needs to be amended to fix pH levels, then do this as needed after testing, but further feeding should not be necessary.

Is the Cucumber Tree Toxic?

The cucumber magnolia is not toxic. The leaves were cut and used as a stew and soup flavoring in colonial-era cooking, in the style of the bay leaf.