Magnolia

Magnolias (Magnolia species) are an integral part of the Southern landscape. There are about 125 species, some of which are native to the United States. Others are native to Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and Asia. Some are trees and others are tall shrubs. They may be deciduous, semi-evergreen or evergreen. They may bloom in early spring before leaves develop, or they may flower in summer when in full foliage. Magnolias are typically pollinated by beetles.

The three main species discussed here are Southern magnolia (M. grandiflora), star magnolia (M. stellata) and sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana). One hybrid has been singled out for discussion because of its popularity in South Carolina – saucer magnolia (M. x soulangiana). Others are briefly mentioned. All magnolias discussed are adapted to all areas of South Carolina.

Magnolia grandiflora (Southern Magnolia) flower.
Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

General Information on Magnolias

Mature Height/Spread: Magnolias range from the small star magnolia to the massive southern magnolia.

Growth Rate: The growth rate of magnolias depends on the species.

Ornamental Features: Most magnolias are valued for their showy, fragrant flowers, large glossy leaves and striking fruit. Most flowers encountered tend to be white, pink or purple. They may be small (3-inch diameter), with thin, strap-shaped petals (star magnolia), or large (12-inch diameter), with wide petals (Southern magnolia). Magnolias may not bloom for many years after planting if grown from seed. One seedling may not bloom for 15 to 20 years, while another may bloom in three years. Note: The petals and sepals are fused in magnolia flowers. Therefore the correct terminology for these colorful floral parts is tepals. The tepals are arranged in 2 or more whorls of 3 to 6 tepals each.

Leaf size ranges from small (2 inches long and 1 inch wide), as with star magnolia, to large (10 inches long and 4 inches wide), as with Southern magnolia. They are usually dark, lustrous green on the upper side, but may be light green, fuzzy reddish-brown or even silvery on the lower side. The leaves are arranged in an alternate fashion on the stems.

The fruit aggregate or seed cone size ranges from 1 to 8 inches. In some species, these seed cones may be distorted in shape or knobby due to irregular flower fertilization. They are reddish and fuzzy and at maturity, open to expose bright red-orange seeds beginning in the early fall (September through November). The fruit is attractive to wildlife.

Nearly mature, reddish Magnolia grandiflora fruit aggregate (seed cone).
Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

The bark of most magnolias is smooth and silvery-gray. This is especially attractive in the winter landscape.

Landscape Use: Magnolias may be used as specimens, screens, patio trees, hedges, border accents and even container plants. There is such a wide variety of form and size that landscape use is dependent on the species being used.

The ideal soil for most magnolias is rich, porous, acidic (pH 5.5 to 6.5) and well-drained. Most tolerate moderate drought and some tolerate wet soils. Magnolias should be planted in full sun or partial shade. The soil in the planting bed should be amended with leaf compost at planting.

Problems: Most magnolias are generally pest-free. They may be troubled by various types of scales, which can infest twigs and leaves. They are also subject to algal leaf spot. Control is not generally warranted.

Magnolias are generally soft-wooded and may be prone to breakage in ice storms. The bark is thin, and easily damaged by mowers and string trimmers. As pruning wounds may not heal well, shaping should be done early in the life of the tree to avoid big cuts. Prune after flowering.

Magnolia roots tend to girdle (circle the trunk or root ball). Cut any circling roots, especially if located at the top of the root ball or close to the trunk. The root system spreads wider than most trees. For this reason, transplanting magnolias is difficult, as so much of the root system is lost. Field-grown trees are best planted in late winter or early spring. Plant container-grown trees in the early fall for best for best root establishment.

Southern Magnolia (M. grandiflora)

Large leaves with rusty brown lower leaf surfaces of Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’).
Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Mature Height/Spread: Southern magnolia, also known as Bull Bay, is a handsome evergreen tree that will grow 60 to 80 feet tall and 30 to 50 feet wide. It is densely pyramidal, symmetrical and low-branching when young. The form is more irregular at maturity. The form of seedlings varies considerably. Some are open with a lot of space between branches, others are very dense. Some are as wide as they are tall, others are more columnar.

Growth Rate: The growth rate is variable, depending on the seedling, but generally it grows at a slow to medium rate (1 to 2 feet yearly), but faster when young. It responds to water and fertilization with faster growth. It is a long-lived tree.

Ornamental Features: This tree is valued for many features: beautiful, fragrant flowers; dark lustrous leaves; striking fruit and overall size and stature. The flower is creamy white, large (8 to 12 inch diameter), solitary and very fragrant. It blooms in May and June, but some cultivars bloom sporadically throughout the summer.

The leaves are large (5 to 10 inches long, 3 to 4 inches wide), dark green and lustrous on the upper side. The lower side may be light green, or fuzzy and rusty brown. This is the indumentum, which is the dense hairy covering on the lower leaf surface. The fuzzy, brown fruit is 3 to 8 inches long. The bright red-orange seeds are exposed September through November. Many bird species feed on the ripened fruit while they are still attached to the seed cones. The fruit and seed cones fall in November and December.

Mature fruit aggregate (seed cone) of Magnolia grandiflora with pendulous red seeds.
Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Landscape Use: The Southern magnolia requires a lot of space, and should be reserved for large properties. It can be used as a lawn specimen, screen, or, with smaller, dense cultivars, as a hedge.

Preferred soil conditions are as previously mentioned. This tree tolerates occasional wet conditions; some cultivars tolerate moderate drought if allowed enough space for root growth. The roots of a mature Southern magnolia may extend up to 3 times the reach of the limbs. If soil is moist, or irrigation can be provided, this tree thrives in full sun. Otherwise, plant the tree in partial shade.

Problems: This tree is mostly problem-free. However, scales may infest leaves and twigs, and beetles may bore into or lay eggs in branches.

False Oleander scale (Pseudaulacaspis cockerelli) Greedy scale (Hemiberlesia rapax), tea scale (Fiorinia theae), and scurfy scale (Chionaspis furfura) have been diagnosed as pests on Southern magnolia in South Carolina landscapes. These armored scales cause yellowing of foliage followed by leaf drop and twig dieback. Typically these scales are pests of magnolias near the coast. Late winter and early summer sprays with horticultural oil will control these scale pests. Use a 2% spray solution (5 tablespoons horticultural oil per gallon of water).

Twig girdler (Oncideres cingulata) is a small grayish-brown beetle that damages twigs by chewing partially through the twig and inserting eggs. Later, the twigs fall to the ground and are the food source for the developing twig girdler larvae. Pick up and dispose of fallen twigs to aid in control.

Black twig borer (Xylosandrus compactus) is a small black ambrosia beetle that attacks many species of trees. These beetles typically bore into 1-inch diameter branches and carry with them the ambrosia fungus. Eggs are laid, and the developing larvae feed on the growing ambrosia fungus. New beetles emerge from the twigs in the early spring. Unfortunately, this fungus is a pathogen of tree tissues, and these branches die from the point of borer infestation outward. Prune out 3 to 4 inches below where branches are damaged, and burn or dispose of prunings immediately. Primarily, black twig borer damage has been diagnosed in the lower half of South Carolina.

In humid climates, leaves may develop leaf spots, such as algal leaf spot. For more information, please see HGIC 2060, Algal Leaf Spot.

Note: Chemical control of diseases and insects on large trees is usually not feasible since adequate coverage of the foliage with a pesticide cannot be achieved.

Leaves are shed as new foliage appears. Unless lower limbs are left on the tree, this leaf litter is unsightly, and often removed by homeowners. Lower limbs are often removed in order to mow beneath the tree. When planting, allow enough space so the lower limbs can drape the ground, hiding the fallen leaves, which will provide necessary nutrients as they decompose.

The thick, upright branching habit and dense foliage makes Magnolia grandiflora ‘Alta’ almost appear to be a large shrub.
Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Cultivars: Please note that there seems to be a significant amount of variation about the mature size of each Southern magnolia cultivar as stated in the literature from various growers.

  • Alta® (PP #11612; ‘TMGH’) – This cultivar has extremely thick, upright branching habit with dense foliage. Dark green leaves have light rusty colored undersides. Grows to 20 to 25 feet tall and 9 to 10 feet wide. Fragrant white flowers to 10 inches in diameter.
  • ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ – This tree is compact and dense, possibly 30 feet tall. The leaves are small (6 inches), with dark, lustrous upper, and rusty brown lower leaf surfaces. The fragrant flowers are 5 to 6 inches in diameter.
  • ‘Claudia Wannamaker’ – This is a vigorous grower with a medium broad pyramid form that is more open than ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty.’ Leaves are dark green with rusty brown undersides. Blooms at an early age and grows to 50 feet tall by 40 feet wide.
  • DD Blanchard™ – This is a large cultivar that grows to 50 feet tall and 25 to 30 feet wide in a pyramidal form. The leaves are shiny green and the leaf undersides are a light rusty orange. It has 6 to 8 inch diameter, fragrant white flowers.
  • ‘Edith Bogue’ – This has a tight pyramidal form (30 feet tall and 15 feet wide). Leaves are narrow, dark green and tan. Blooms at an early age.
  • ‘Green Giant’ – This large cultivar grows to 50 to 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide in a pyramidal form. The foliage is a shiny green with green leaf undersides.
  • ‘Kay Parris’ – This is a small cultivar (20 feet and 10 to 15 feet wide), so smaller than ‘Little Gem’, but faster growing. Shiny leaves have waved margins and coppery velvet undersides. Has 7 inch diameter flowers and blooms at an early age.

    Compact, upright growing habit of Magnolia grandiflora ‘Teddy Bear’.
    Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • ‘Little Gem’ – This is compact and upright, more like a dense shrub (20 – 35 feet tall and 10 feet wide). Leaves are small (4 inches) and lustrous, dark green and bronze. Flowers are small (4-inches in diameter). Blooms at an early age and sporadically throughout the growing season.
  • Teddy Bear® (PP #13049; ‘Southern Charm’) – This is a compact, upright growing tree with a reddish-brown indumentum (dense hairy covering) on the lower leaf surface. Grows to 20 feet tall and 12 feet wide. Plants will be more compact in full sun. It has 6 to 8 inch wide, white flowers.
  • ‘Majestic Beauty’ – This is a large pyramidal tree (35 to 50 feet tall and 20 feet wide). Leaves are large and flowers profusely. Flowers are 12 inches in diameter.
  • ‘Samuel Sommer’ – This tree is fast growing, with an upright, ascending habit (35 to 40 feet tall and 30 feet wide). Leaves dark green and bronze. Large flowers (to 12 inches or more in diameter).
  • ‘St. Mary’ – This has a compact, somewhat flat habit. It is easily trained for espalier. Early, profuse flowers. Leaves dark green and deep bronze.

Star Magnolia (M. stellata)

Mature Height /Spread: Star magnolia is a dense, oval-to-rounded deciduous shrub or small, multi-stemmed tree that grows 15 to 20 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide.

Growth Rate: It is a slow grower (3 to 6 feet over 5 to 6 years). Cold hardy to USDA zone 5.

Ornamental Features: The flowers of this tree/shrub are relatively small (3- to 4-inches in diameter), pink or white, fragrant, and appear in late

‘Waterlily’ star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) flower.
Jack Scheper ©2002 Floridata.com

February and March before the leaves appear. Star magnolias can be damaged by freeze, although they are not as sensitive to cold as the saucer magnolia. (Late-blooming cultivars are available.) The leaves are dark green on top and light green underneath, and show little change in color in fall before dropping.

Landscape Use: This tree may be used as a lawn specimen, border accent, or patio container plant. Ideal soil conditions are the same as previously mentioned. This tree doesn’t tolerate shade and should be protected from late winter winds that may damage open flowers. Avoid placing this tree in a southern exposure where flowers will open early.

Problems: As with most magnolias, this plant is mostly pest-free. Deciduous magnolias are susceptible to powdery mildew. Rake up and dispose of dropped foliage in the fall to aid in control. For more information, please see HGIC 2049, Powdery Mildew.

Cultivars:

  • ‘Centennial’ – The flower is 5 inches in diameter, petals blushed with slight pink on the outside. Vigorous and cold hardy. From the Arnold Arboretum as a seedling originally from ‘Rosea.’
  • ‘Rosea’ – (Pink Star Magnolia) – Flower buds are pink, fading to a white flower. Good form and vigor. More than one clone has this name, so buy this plant in flower to ensure desired color.
  • ‘Royal Star’ – Faintly Pink buds open to large, fragrant, double white flowers. From a seedling originally from ‘Waterlily.’
  • ‘Waterlily’ – Very fragrant pink buds open to white, 5-inch flowers. This plant is late-blooming.

Saucer Magnolia (M. x soulangiana)

Saucer magnolia, a hybrid of M. denudata and M. liliifolia, is usually a large, spreading shrub or small, low-branched tree with wide spreading branches. It will grow 20 to 30 feet tall and wide. It is deciduous.

Growth Rate: It has a medium growth rate (about 1 foot per year).

Ornamental Features: It is valued most for its early display of flowers. The large white flowers (5 to 10 inches) shaded with pink and purple open in March and April (possibly February along the coast) before the leaves appear. These early blooms can be damaged by early frost. Late-blooming cultivars are available, although the flowers may not be as showy. Leaves are medium green on upper and lower sides. They show little color change in fall.

Saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana) flowers.
Karen Russ, ©HGIC, Clemson Extension

Landscape Use: This shrub/tree is an excellent selection as a specimen, container plant and espalier. It works well in groupings.

Although it prefers full sun, it tolerates partial shade. As with star magnolia, avoid planting this tree in southern exposures, as bloom will occur earlier. Ideal soil conditions are as previously noted. This tree tolerates occasional wet soil and moderate droughts.

Prune drooping branches if located near a patio or walkway. To increase canopy density and flowering, prune aggressive branches after flowering.

Problems: Saucer magnolias are generally pest-free. They may be troubled by various types of scales, which can infest twigs and leaves (see above under problems of M. grandiflora). They are also subject to algal leaf spot and two-spotted spider mites. For more information on algal leaf spot, please see HGIC 2060, Algal Leaf Spot. Spider mites can be controlled with sprays of insecticidal soap or 2% horticultural oil. Deciduous magnolias are also susceptible to powdery mildew. Rake up and dispose of dropped leaves in the fall to aid in control. Please see HGIC 2049, Powdery Mildew for more information.

Cultivars:

  • ‘Brozzonii’ – A large plant (25 to 30 feet tall) with large white flowers, lavender-pink at the base. A late bloomer. May not be as fragrant.
  • ‘Grace McDade’ – This plant has a loose, shrubby habit. Flowers are large, white inside and lavender-pink outside.
  • ‘Lennei’ – This stiff, broad shrub has huge flowers, white inside with dark purplish-magenta outside. It flowers late, and usually sporadically into the summer. The leaves are larger than most.
  • ‘Rustica Rubra’ – This is possibly a seedling of ‘Lennei,’ but is a larger and looser shrub. Flowers are rose-red with white inside.
  • ‘San Jose’ – This is an early bloomer with large, fragrant, rosy purple flowers. A vigorous grower.
  • ‘Speciosa’ – This late-flowering, dense tree has white blooms with flushed purple at the base.
  • ‘Verbanica’ – This is a slow-growing late bloomer. Flowers are rose pink outside, with white at the tips. Young plant blooms profusely.

Sweetbay Magnolia (M. virginiana)

Mature Height/ Spread: Sweetbay magnolia is usually a single-trunk tree, sometimes a multi-stemmed round shrub. It is usually deciduous in the Piedmont and semi-evergreen or evergreen in the remainder of the state. It can grow 40 to 50 feet tall and 15 to 25 feet wide.

Growth Rate: This tree grows at a moderate rate (1 to 1½ feet per year).

Ornamental Features: The flowers are small (2- to 3-inches in diameter), creamy white and lemon-scented. They bloom in May and June; some bloom through September. This tree may be slow to flower in youth. The leaves are dark green with a silver underside. They are especially attractive when the wind blows. The bark on older, larger stems is silvery-gray and bright green on new twigs. The small fruit are green with red seeds.

Landscape Use: The branches of sweetbay magnolia grow upright, making this tree ideal for outdoor living areas – decks, patios and pools, as well as lawn specimens and border accents. This tree grows freely in coastal areas, and is often found along stream banks and swamps. Although it flourishes in moist soil, it will tolerate moderate drought. It requires acid, well-drained soil, and full sun or partial shade.

Problems: This tree has few problems. Scales may infest foliage and twigs, especially in dry areas where the tree may suffer stress (see above under problems of M. grandiflora). As with other magnolias, mechanical damage and breakage from ice may cause problems.

Cultivars:

  • Moonglow® (PP #12065; ‘Jim Wilson’) – This cultivar, named after the late host of the Victory Gardens television show, is more vigorous growing than the species, and has larger flowers. Its ivory white flowers are 4 inches wide with a lemon scent. Grows to 20 feet tall and 18 feet wide.

Other Species & Hybrids

Large, white fragrant flowers form in late May on bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla).
Joey Williamson, ©2016 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Magnolia acuminata (Cucumber Tree) – This is a very large native tree (50 to 70 feet tall, 40 to 60 feet wide). It has small, inconspicuous flowers, light green leaves (6 to 10 inches long) and unusual cucumber-shaped fruit, which turns from a bright green to red in autumn. This is a hardy tree and a rapid grower and is best used in natural areas.

Magnolia fraseri (Fraser’s Magnolia) – This native magnolia is also known as the fishtail magnolia because of the lobed fishtail-like base to the 12 inch long leaves. The flowers are large, white and fragrant. Fraser’s magnolia may be found in the mountainous Upper Piedmont SC counties.

Magnolia pyramidata (Pyramid Magnolia) – The pyramid magnolia is a rarely encountered native tree to the coastal regions of the state. The leaves and flowers are quite similar to Fraser’s magnolia, but smaller.

Magnolia macrophylla (Bigleaf Magnolia) – This tall tree or shrub (30 to 40 feet) has the largest leaves and blooms of any hardy native North American tree. Leaves are 1 to 3 feet long, and the fragrant flowers are 10 to 12 inches in diameter. This tree is rare in South Carolina, and has a preference for calcareous soils with a soil pH near neutral.

False Oleander Scale (Pseudaulacaspis cockerelli) has been diagnosed on banana shrubs in South Carolina.

Immature fruit aggregate and large leaves of a bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla).
Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Magnolia tripetala (Umbrella Tree) – This native, deciduous tree grows to 15 to 30 feet tall. The leaves are up to 20 inches long, and the flowers are creamy-white and up to 11 inches in diameter.

Immature fruit aggregate (seed cone) developing on an umbrella tree (Magnolia tripetala).
Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

The flowers open after the leaves have emerged in the late spring. This species grows well in partial shade to full shade.

Magnolia figo (Banana Shrub; formally Michellia figo) – Recently, plants in the genus Michellia were transferred to the genus Magnolia. These large shrubs grow to 10 to 20 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide, and bloom in late April through early May.

The species is divided into 3 naturally occurring varieties, M. figo var. figo, M. figo var. skinneriana, and M. figo var. crassipes. The flowers (tepals) of the first two varieties are pale yellow and may be edged in reddish-purple. Those of the latter variety are completely purplish-red to dark purple. There are several cultivars of banana shrub available. All are very strongly scented of bananas. Banana shrubs are native to China.

Banana shrub (Magnolia figo var. figo) in bloom.
Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Magnolia laevifolia (formally Michellia yunnanensis) – This evergreen shrub or small tree grows to about 12 feet tall, and has brown buds that open to sweetly fragrant, white flowers. There are several cultivars available. Some are smaller shrubs, and have a brown indumentum (a dense hairy covering) on flower buds, stems and lower leaf surfaces.

The brown buds of Magnolia laevifolia open to white fragrant flowers.
Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Hybrids:

Magnolia x loebneri (Loebner Magnolia) – This deciduous tree is 15 to 30 feet tall with a slightly greater spread. It is a hybrid of M. stellata and M. kobus (from Japan). The fragrant flowers bloom in March-April before the foliage appears, but a couple of weeks later than its M. stellata parent. They have star-shaped flowers with 12 narrow petals (tepals). The leaves are medium green. Recommended cultivars include ‘Leonard Messel,’ ‘Merrill,’ ‘Ballerina,’ and ‘Spring Snow.’

Magnolia x ‘Butterflies’ (PP #7456) – This cultivar is a cross between selections of M. accuminata and M. enudata. The flowers are a buttery yellow. The upright tree may grow to 25 feet tall and 10 feet wide, and flowers in the spring before the foliage appears.

The deciduous Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ has yellow flowers that open during late March before the foliage appears.
Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

The ‘Little Girl’ hybrids (Ann, Betty, Judy, Randy, Ricki, Susan and Jane) are hybrids of M. liliiflora and M. stellata. These cultivars are later flowering than both the star and saucer magnolias, and their blooms are less often damaged by late spring frosts.

Deciduous, hybrid magnolia (Magnolia ‘Jane’) flowers.
Joey Williamson, ©2014 HGIC, Clemson Extension

These ‘Little Girl’ cultivars are hybrids produced by the US National Arboretum and released in 1968. These hybrid cultivars grow to 15 feet tall, and begin blooming just before the foliage appears. The cultivars are listed in order of flowering time, and their flowers range in color from reddish purple to pink. The cultivar ‘Jane’ is one of the most common of the group, with very fragrant flowers – reddish purple on the outside and white on the inside.

Magnolia Susan

Description

Compact and bushy deciduous shrub with long lasting, upright, purple blooms in spring.

Ideal for growing in containers.

Awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM).

Characteristics

  • Habit: Compact and bushy. Can be grown as a small tree or shrub.
  • Leaves: Green – deciduous.
  • Flowers: Large upright purplish pink buds and flowers appear in spring. Often fragrant. Usually open before the leaves appear.
  • Size at 5 years: Height & Spread 3ft (100cm)
  • Size at 20 years: Height & Spread 13ft (400cm)
  • Aspect: Full sun or partial shade. Sheltered. South, west or east facing.
  • Hardiness in UK: Hardy (Zone H6)
  • Soil Requirements: Any normal garden soil. Moist but well drained.

Planting Magnolia Susan

Will perform best if planted in full sun and sheltered from cold winds. Choose a well-drained site. Dig over the soil area before planting and add plenty of humus or well-rotted compost. Dig a hole large enough to take the roots fully spread out. Add a good general purpose fertilizer such as bonemeal. Firm in well and water thoroughly.

Water regularly until well established.

Planting Context

Ideal for growing in containers. Makes a good specimen plant in beds and borders.

Taking Care of Magnolia Susan

Can be pruned in midsummer once flowers have faded. Flowers are produced on last season’s growth, so the only pruning necessary is to trim and shape. Do not prune back too hard.

Apply a mulch of well rotted compost in the autumn.

Propagating Magnolia Susan

The best way to propagate Magnolia Susan is to take softwood cuttings in late spring or early summer. Cuttings can be slow to root so some bottom heat is recommended.

Magnolias are a tree of suburbia, mapping the streets like a town planner’s crayon. As dependable and predictable as daffodils, lilac and forsythia, they spill their waxy, phallic buds into flower in front of tens of thousands of quiet streets around London alone. There are 80 species of magnolia and two of the tulip tree (Liriodendron), which is in the magnolia family, but the two you will most likely see are Magnolia x soulangeana , which has magenta-stained, creamy flowers on what looks like a small, multi-branched tree or, less opulently conspicuous and usually in flower a little earlier, M stellata, which has white starbursts for flowers. This is the only magnolia that I have ever grown, although it was an essential part of the spring flowering in our London garden. I don’t know why I have not planted one here, although I suspect that our soil is not acidic enough, and I have become much more strict nowadays about only growing plants that are inclined to thrive. I see little point in bullying anything into flower.

On both M x soulangeana and stellata the flowers appear before the leaves, making M x soulangeana look like a Las Vegas chorus girl, all legs and sequinned, vacuum-packed nakedness, and M stellata look vulnerable, its white flowers individual tatters of glory that amount to a glorious show in a fully mature shrub.

The main point about these two, let alone the rest of the magnolia tribe, is their outlandishness, their complete and utter strangeness to the softly focused northern-european eye. One can imagine the astonishment of the early plant hunters on seeing these trees with their monstrous flowers on bare branches, unlike anything growing back home. Which is why they are such a delightfully quirky (yet entirely expected) addition to suburban gardens, catching exactly the mixture of comfort and exotica born out of conquest of lands unimaginably different. M stellata comes from Japan and M x soulangeana is a hybrid bred in 1825 in Paris from a cross between M denudata and M liliiflora. Both shrubs are tough, taking almost the worst that our weather can throw at them, but the flowers are tender, reduced to sad rags by late frosts. The secret of getting the best from early-flowering magnolias is to put them in a cold spot where a day or two of unseasonable warmth will not seduce the buds into opening too soon, so that when the flowers do emerge they are less likely to be blitzed by a late frost. Like all magnolias, they do not really like lime, feeling comfortable in a moist, leafy soil that mimics their woodland inheritance.

Both these magnolias are atypical of the genus in that they flower when the plants are still young, whereas many take a while before offering a peep of petal – M campbellii often takes 25 years before flowering, and the very common M grandiflora or ‘Bull Bay’ produces fabulous creamy flowers with a lemony fragrance and grows happily up a wall. In the southern states of America, it can get up to 100ft tall, but in this country it must have the warmth of a brick wall to ease it through the winter. It needs some time – as long as 10 years – and as much sunshine as we are able to give it, ie a south-facing wall, before it starts to perform (it flowers steadily from July into autumn). There are clones that are more forward and produce flowers after five years, notably ‘Exoniensis’ or ‘Goliath’, whose flowers are whoppers. Atypically, M grandiflora will prosper on lime, as long as it has a good depth of rich soil.

The first magnolia to come to Britain was M Virginiana, brought back from the American colonies in 1688 by the Rev John Banister. It caused an immediate stir when it began flowering. No gardener had ever seen anything like it before. In fact it is by no means the most glorious magnolia to be found, being a kind of poor cousin to M grandiflora, but it does have one of the best fragrances of all of the tribe.

The tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, brought in from Virginia around the same time, is the magnolia to top all magnolias, growing to nearly 200ft in its native swampy states, and carrying flowers like truncated orange tulips. Its only failing is that the flowers all grow at the top, which, in time, is almost out of sight. They are so high because they are only produced on mature trees. It is a good tree, fast growing (up to 5ft a year), statuesque and with lovely rich autumn colours. L t ‘Fastigiatum’ is, like all fastigiate trees, upright growing, almost columnar and an excellent choice if you want height in a confined space.

In Cornwall and other western fringes of Britain warmed by the gulf stream, you can see magnolias that reach something like their natural immensity. When I first saw M campbellii in flower, just a few years ago in Glendurgan and Penjerrick, just outside Falmouth, I was bowled over by the treeness of the things. We have become accustomed to flowering plants being small or fragile or somehow domestic in scale, but these are as big as the biggest ash trees, yet garlanded with flower. In its native Himalayas it can reach 150ft, although it does well to reach a third of that in this country. It likes an acidic soil and spring frosts would reduce the flowers to used tissue, so it must be in a sheltered and/or mild spot. An even bigger tree is M x veitchii , which is a cross between M campbellii and M denudata , and this has reached 85ft in Cornwall. M campbellii was ‘discovered’ by Sir Joseph Hooker, whose main crime was instigating the mania for rhododendrons in this country, and was the first one to be introduced from Asia (he came across it in 1848 near Darjeeling).

Talk of giant trees is fine, vicarious stuff, but a little ambitious for the average back gardener (although have you noticed how many magnolias are planted in front gardens? It is a display thing: magnolias as tailfeathers and headdresses. We are back with our dancing, all-flowering Vegas girls.) Most gardens can only hold a modest magnolia. If you do not want to grow the standard two, the hybrid M x loebneri is a cross between M stellata and M kobus, and has the virtues of both with no known faults. It flowers when young, grows fast almost anywhere, indifferent to soil conditions other than poor drainage.

M liliiflora ‘Nigra’ is prompt with flowers, although slow to grow. It never gets very large, so is suitable for small gardens, topping out at about 10ft. It has large, cylindrical, wine-purple buds that start opening into crocus-shaped flower in June/July and go on being produced until autumn. Unfortunately, it must have acidic soil to perform.

My roots: A week in Monty’s garden

Tom’s treehouse has been transformed into raised beds. This is not an arboreal form of roof gardening but an intelligent redispersal of limited resources. Or so we have told Tom. This time last year we extended our tunnel, doubling its size and moving it to a new site, which had terrible compaction and weed problems. We dug it over, made four beds which we covered with woven polypropylene landscape fabric, and planted through it. This stopped the weeds in their tracks, and the soil (virgin grassland) had enough nutrients for the tomatoes to grow lustily. But we could not repeat it this year. The beds have been dug and manured, which raised them a foot, but without anything to contain them. Raised beds without an edge is a mistake: you end up not using a foot on either side because the slopes crumble on to the paths. It reduces the growing space by a third. Now we have got round to edging them properly.

Part of the delay has been that I was hunting for oak boards of the right size and price. I needed 50m of boards at least 30cm wide. Untreated softwood planks are hard to get wide enough, only last a few years, and don’t look as good. Does it matter what the aesthetics of a tunnel are like? You bet it does. I spend far more waking hours in there than I do in our bedroom and I care very much what that looks like in every detail. An oak plank is a beautiful thing; I would happily have some hanging around the place just as inspiring objects. However, the two conditions of size and price were mutually exclusive. For the past month I have dealt with the problem by doing nothing. Then Sarah had a brainwave. We could use the wood from the treehouse that I made one weekend while she was away. Sarah dislikes its tilting (charming), slapdash (spontaneous), unstructured (creative) form. Tom did not go near it for months at a time. More to the point, the tree, a willow, needs pollarding radically to let light and air on to the site where we grow the gooseberries and redcurrants. I made the offending building mainly from scaffolding planks, which are ideal for making raised beds. So we have done the dirty dismantling deed and made the raised beds, which look fantastic. Solid. Proper. I christened them last night by planting out American land cress, Little Gem lettuce, spinach and chervil. Right to the wooden edge. And Tom? He is busy making another treehouse. In his shed.

Your roots

How to raise magnificent magnolias, and where to see them.

All magnolias have soft, fleshy roots that can easily be damaged by moving, so be careful when handling them. Make sure the plant is not potbound and give it lots of humus and compost in the (large) planting hole to give the initial growth an easy run. Later they will fare fine – a mature magnolia is very wind resistant. In the storms of 1987 and 1990, magnolias remained firmly rooted where other, smaller trees were scattered like ninepins.

Do not prune magnolias in the growing season, as they are likely to ‘bleed’. Prune them only to clear dead wood or shape between November and February. Most magnolias will grow back well from old wood. Any pruning wounds do not need painting over.

If you want to see magnolias in all their raging glory, try these gardens this weekend:

· Glendurgan, near Falmouth, Cornwall (01326 250 906). Open 10.30am-4.30pm.

· Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London (020 8940 1171). Open 9.30am-6.30pm.

· Logan Botanic Garden, Port Logan Stranraer, Scotland (01776 860 231). Open 9.30am-6pm.

Product Details

Susan is a stunning, small growing Magnolia tree which produces a deep pink-purple flower. It is one of the “Little girl hybrids” that were developed at the US National Arboretum from 1955-56, they are known for their impressive floral display.

This pretty Magnolia has numerous tulip shaped flowers; they are slender and appear upright on the tree, opening cerise pink in colour around April. The medium sized, mid green leaves are lustrous and appear on the tree after the floral display, remaining until the autumn when they tend to turn yellow before falling.

Magnolia Susan is often grown as a narrow shrub, however at Barcham we produce this pretty, small growing, Magnolia as a small tree. Medium specimens have a short clear stem of around 90cm, and a compact crown, which remains tight and pyramidal as the tree matures. Magnolias in general have a preference for free draining, slightly acidic soil, and this pretty tree is no exception to this, however it will also perform well on neutral and slightly alkaline soil.

This fantastic little tree is an absolute treasure; there are very few gardens that would not benefit from the cheery colour and delightful compact shape of this Magnolia! To prolong flowering in your garden, where space allows, why not consider planting Amelanchier, Malus and Crataegus to compliment Magnolia Susan, taking flowering from early Spring to early Summer!

Mature Height: 3-7m

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *