Ten species of magnolia are native to the U.S. and all of them are found in the Eastern part of the country. Commonly planted for their showy flowers, magnolias are a favorite of Southern gardeners. Native species can be found as far north as Canada, however, and are well-suited to many environments. Whether cutting down a magnolia is legal is a complex issue.
State Protected and Federally Protected Trees
Before you cut down a magnolia tree, determine whether it is native to the United States and whether it is protected. Trees can be protected at both the state and federal level. Federally protected trees such as Ashe's Magnolia (Magnolia ashei) are considered rare in all parts of their native range. It is illegal to cut down these trees. Other trees such as the cucumber magnolia are not federally protected because they are abundant in most parts of their native range. However, the cucumber magnolia is protected in Indiana because it is rare in its native range there.
About Conservation Status Ranks
Global conservation status ranks determine which trees are protected by states and the federal government. These ranks are researched and assigned by NatureServe, a nonprofit organization working with government and civilian agencies to protect the world's natural resources. Ranks are assigned at the global level down to the state or province level and give information about a species presence in any given area. Ashe's magnolia, for example, is given the rank G2, meaning it is globally imperiled.
Steps for Homeowners
Determining whether it is acceptable to remove a magnolia from your property is complicated, but resources are available to assist homeowners in making that determination. Each state in the U.S. is part of a Natural Heritage Program. Liaisons from these programs will visit your property and help you determine whether your tree is protected and, if so, what steps need to be taken to ensure its longevity. The U.S. Forest Service, as well as your state wildlife department, can provide you with the contact information for the Natural Heritage Program liaison in your area.
Throughout the U.S. and China, about 80 species of magnolia can be found. Of the 80, nine are native only to the U.S and one, the cucumber magnolia, is native to the U.S. and Canada. According to the United States National Arboretum, magnolias are among the most primitive of all flowering plants. It also states that magnolias have a root system that consists of largely unbranched, rope-like roots. This root system is unique among plants and makes transplanting magnolias difficult.