Magnolias are many things – living fossils, purveyors of heavenly scents, medicinal plants and perhaps most importantly, spectacular flowering trees that you can’t help but take the time to appreciate when in bloom. They can vary in size from large bushes such as Magnolia stellata, right up to 60-80’ tall trees when it comes to Southern Magnolia (M. grandiflora) growing in warmer climates. There is a vast array of flower form and colour, some quite fragrant, others not at all; and while most are deciduous, with the aforementioned Magnolia grandiflora being a reliably evergreen species, others like Sweetbay (M. virginiana) are only semi-evergreen in their northern range. While there are literally hundreds of available Magnolia cultivars on the market, I thought I would guide you through the basics, or those varieties that you are likely to find at your local garden centre.
Star magnolias are large bushes or small trees with dense canopies that produce either white or pale pink blooms in abundance with strap-like petals. They are closely related to Magnolia kobus and are one of the easiest magnolias to grow. The species, Magnolia stellata, bears lightly scented white blooms emerging from pussy willow-like buds in early spring, before the leaves emerge. ‘Royal Star’ is a more compact form with fragrant white flowers emerging from blush pink buds; it is also an RHS Award of Garden Merit winner. True pale pinks can be found in Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’ or M. x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’, which is a hybrid of Magnolia kobus and pink star magnolia. Given their small stature, Star magnolias can also be grown successfully in containers.
Magnolia stellata, Magnolia stellata 'Rosea', Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star',
While not as popular or well-known as they should be, the yellow-flowered magnolias add depth to the colour palette of these flowering trees. Magnolia x brooklynensis ‘Yellow Bird’ is a M. acuminata cross with 3” goblet-shaped blooms of a clear yellow that emerge in April; it was introduced by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 1981 and grows to an average of 30’ tall. ‘Elizabeth’ is one of my favourites as this hybrid of Magnolia denudata and M. acuminata bears pale yellow blossoms with a sweet lemon fragrance that fade to cream. ‘Butterflies’ has a similar lineage with canary yellow blooms that open to 4-5” wide and carry a light lemon scent. It is generally pyramidal in form, growing an average of 20’ tall.
Magnolia x 'Elizabeth', Magnolia x 'Yellow Bird'
We live at the northern range of Magnolia grandiflora, which is native to the deep south of the US, so it is important that you chose a planting site sheltered from cold winter winds. Unlike most magnolias, it is evergreen and blooms in summer, with large pure white flowers emanating a heady sweet lemon fragrance. The glossy deep green foliage often has fuzzy brown hairs or indumentum on the reverse, with the best example found on varieties such as ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’, which along with ‘Victoria’ and ‘Edith Bogue’ are all quite cold hardy. Snow load can cause branch breakage when it does occur, but the columnar form ‘Alta’ with its narrow leaves tends not to have this problem. Maximum height in coastal BC is usually around 25-30’ but two compact forms, ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Teddy Bear’, can be used for smaller landscapes. The reddish-pink seed heads that develop after flowering also provide some garden interest.
Magnolia grandiflora seed head.
These old-fashioned hybrids of Magnolia denudata and M. liliiflora were first bred in France during the early 1800’s and have resulted in dozens of cultivars; they are named Magnolia x soulangeana after the original breeder, Etienne Soulange-Bodin. They feature large cup-shaped blossoms which are often fragrant, many of which are two-toned in colour, usually white with a darker pink or magenta base. Size can vary from 25-30’ tall and wide (‘Rustica Rubra’) to more compact forms such as ‘Lennei’ and ‘Alexandrina’ (15-20’). For those of you in a hurry some cultivars such as ‘San Jose’ come into bloom at a young age and while you’re at it, keep an eye out for the interesting reddish-orange seeds that develop afterwards.
Magnolia denudata, Magnolia x soulangeana seed pod, Magnolia x soulangeana in bud, Magnolia x soulangeana 'Alexandrina', Magnolia x soulangeana 'Lennei'
Magnolia denudata has been cultivated in the Far East for hundreds of years and produces an abundance of highly fragrant white (occasionally tinged pink at the base) goblet-shaped blooms with thick petals. Also known as the Lily Tree, it is hardy to USDA zone 6 and grows with an upright form, maturing at 30’ tall in urban gardens.
Little Girl Series
This series of eight dwarf magnolias was originally released in 1965 by the US Arboretum at Washington. These crosses of Magnolia liliiflora and M. stellata mature at an average height of 12’ tall, making them great choices for urban landscapes. They all have upright slender blooms, somewhat similar to Saucer Magnolias, but smaller in size. The most common cultivars available locally include ‘Randy’ (reddish-purple), ‘Susan’ (fuchsia), ‘Betty’ (fuchsia-pink) and ‘Ricki’ (light reddish-purple), with ‘Ann’, ‘Jane’, ‘Pinkie’ and ‘Judy’ rounding out the series. They are also quite cold hardy at USDA zone 4.
Magnolia x 'Betty', Magnolia x 'Randy', Magnolia x 'Susan'
A lesser known species that thrives in open shade or sun, the egg-shaped buds open to cupped white blossoms with contrasting crimson stamens. The nodding flowers of Magnolia sieboldii are highly fragrant and borne from May to early July, with sporadic blooms throughout the summer. This native of China, Korea and Japan grows as an open-shaped bush or small tree, maturing at 12’ tall and produces lovely reddish-pink seed pods.
Magnolia liliiflora is a small deciduous tree or shrub which matures at 8-12’ tall and wide, making it a good choice for smaller gardens. The most common cultivar, ‘Nigra’ or the Black Lily Magnolia was introduced to cultivation from Japan back in 1861 and is an RHS Award of Garden Merit winner. It bears narrow dark reddish-purple blooms with petals up to 4-5” long that peel open as they mature.
- With the exception of Sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) which thrives in wet conditions, Magnolias prefer well-drained organic soils.
- Magnolias dislike root disturbance; so try not to transplant them and consider underplanting with long-lived perennials.
- Magnolias heal slowly, so limit your pruning and time it for right after the flowers fade.
- Young trees will require regular summer watering for two years, until they are established.
- Magnolias are acid-loving trees, so keep the lime for your lawn away from the root zone if possible.
- Most Magnolias overwinter their flower buds, so try to site them out of prevailing cold winter winds.