designing with magnolias, with andrew bunting
DO YOU RECALL the first plants that caught your eye–the ones that proved your gateway drugs into plantaholic behavior? Andrew Bunting looked out his childhood bedroom window into the canopy of an old saucer magnolia, and apparently thanks to that venerable tree, he was bitten bigtime by the magnolia bug. Who better to ask about which are the best for which garden size or purpose, from espalier and hedges to upright forms that fit tight spots?
Andrew, who is now assistant director of the Chicago Botanic Garden, is past president of Magnolia Society International’s board of directors, and remains a member of the society’s board. In his tenure over 20 years as curator at Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Andrew built the magnolia collection from about 50 to more than 200 cultivars. That’s a lot of magnolias.
Now Andrew Bunting is author of a book on the queen of flowering trees, called “The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias,” just out from Timber Press as part of an ongoing series on various distinctive genera of plants.
We talked magnolias on my public-radio show and podcast. Read along while you listen in to the April 25, 2016 edition of the podcast using the player below (or at this link)–and even learn how to train a magnolia or any woody plant into an espalier yourself.
my magnolia q&a with andrew bunting
Q. You still remember that first magnolia, huh?
A. It was outside my bedroom window in Manhattan, Illinois, not too far from here.
Q. So you’ve moved back home close to home.
A. I was born in Illinois, and lived here till I was about 3, then moved away. I came back for high school and college, and then left again for the East Coast for about 30 years, and then just came back last May.
Q.When is bagnolia season there, in the Chicago area?
A. Typically, the earliest magnolias—the star magnolias, Magnolia x loebneri, the saucer magnolia—they all start around April 1.
Q. That’s in a typical year. We’re having a very crazy year here, with no winter and spring in February, so who knows what is going to go on. I’m not placing any bets on any magnolias or on anything this year.
Before we talk more about magnolias: What does your assistant director job at Chicago Botanic Garden include? I assume it has to do with more than magnolias.
A. My position is two-fold currently. One is director of plant collections, and with that hat on I oversee our curatorial staff. We have a woody plant curator and a curator of perennials, and also in that same department is where all the labeling goes on, and where we keep the database for nearly 10,000 different kinds of plants.
Within that department, we also build our plant collections, and build the collections within the garden. While we want to have ornamental gardens, we also want to have gardens that have as much diversity as we can within each garden.
Q. When you were talking about the collections, I was thinking of the words I always love when speaking of either botanic gardens or museums: accessions, and deaccessions. Keeping track of them, the records—like, “That accession was from 1973.” I love that. [Laughter.]
And in my garden the only record of accessions is what is laughingly called my brain—more the provenance emotionally of my plants. But you have records. You know how old the oldest (fill in the blank) tree on the property is.
A. Any plant on the property we can tell you he year we got it, where we got it from, how it was received, how much we paid for it—and any other kind of anecdotal information that might be embedded in each of the computerized records.
Q. I love it. Last time you visited the show, we talked about Magnolia pruning and about some of your favorites varieties in various categories. Now to sort of to pick up on that last bit, I loved the chapter called “Designing With Magnolias” in the front of the new book. I thought we could start there.
There were some uses there that I hadn’t ever thought of, like for screening, or espalier. Can we have a brief introduction to designing with magnolias?
A. In general magnolias can be used in multiple ways. One—and probably the way most people use them—is as a specimen flowering tree. One of the smaller ones could be used as a focal point in the landscape, though some of the bigger ones, like the saucer magnolia, might be used as a specimen tree seen from afar.
I also like them because to me they are the quintessential spring-flowering tree. There is no tree that has more flowers over the entire tree than the magnolia. So if you can only choose one flowering tree, magnolia would be at the top of the list. Year in and year out, there is this incredible profusion of flowers.
If you live down South, say Zone 7 or higher, then there is a whole bunch of evergreen magnolias.
There are also native magnolia, so if you are a gardener who prefers magnolias that are native to the United States, there are about six or seven species to choose from.
Most magnolias prefer dry or well-drained soil, but there are ones like the sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, which actually grows in fairly wet areas, or almost edges of ponds and lakes in the wild.
While they don’t fill every design niche in the garden, I think they are a much more diverse group of plants than most people realize.
Q. We just said that the earliest ones can come, where you are in Chicago or I am in the Northeast, as early as early April. But if one chooses carefully, you could have a longish succession of magnolias from like when to when if we plan accordingly?
A. Depending where you live, yes. Basically the farther South, the more diversity you can have, but even in our climates, you can have magnolias in flower from April 1 to the middle of May.
The earliest ones here would be start magnolia, saucer magnolia, Loebner magnolia, Magnolia kobus…and then there are those I’d call “midseason,” like the Girl magnolias—ones called ‘Ann’ and ‘Susan’ and ‘Betty’ and ‘Judy,’ and those bloom a couple of weeks later. And then after those, you would get some of the later ones, which tend to be ones that have the cucumber tree magnolia, Magnolia acuminata, as one of the parents. Those tend to be one of what are called the yellow magnolias, and can be anything from a soft sulfur or butter yellow, like ‘Elizabeth,’ to ones that are more golden in color, like ‘Gold Cup.’ [Below, yellow ‘Golden Gift.]
And even a little later than those are the sweetbay magnolias, that can take the wet conditions, and those bloom in May into early June.
I would say as far as the ones that are very floriferous, you could have ones in bloom from April 1 to the middle of May, and then a few of the other kinds can trickle in from the end of May to early June.
Q. Since we last spoke I’ve had a few magnolia “deaccessions,” or deaths. [Laughter.] I have this issue with yellow-bellied sapsuckers.
A. I know those are an issue up in your area. Where I used to work, at Swarthmore near Philadelphia, especially the saucer magnolia would be visited by sapsuckers—but not to the point where it was detrimental to the plant.
Here, especially in the Chicagoland areas, the soils are very heavy and maybe don’t drain as well as some other parts of the country. The soils that are on the heavy side can put some level of stress on magnolias, so here the problem is more with magnolia scale—a typical white scaley insect that can suck the life, so to speak, out of magnolias and put them under additional stress.Here it’s generally cold, and then sometimes magnolia scale—those are the two big problems.
Q. In the “Designing With Magnolias” chapter of your new book, you mention screening with magnolias, using them as a hedge. It never occurred to me—I don’t have a lot of hedges anyway—but which ones work for that and what do I do?
A. This again might be more applicable to people in the South, and you might use evergreen magnolias. The one that’s most popular in the South is the Southern magnolia. Although the Southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, can be legitimately evergreen all the way into New York City, Long Island, maybe even creeping into parts of coastal Connecticut.
But then there is also Magnolia virginia, the sweetbay magnolia, and there are basically two types: the variety virginiana, which loses its leaves, and the variety australis (above), which keeps its leaves. So that’s another good choice for an evergreen magnolia for use in screening.
But you can also use some of the deciduous ones. If you wanted to create a low hedge, a deciduous hedge, then say a star magnolia, Magnolia stellata—there is ‘Rosea,’ a pink one, and one of favorites of the star magnolias is ‘Centennial,’ which was named by the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard, and that’s a very floriferous white one.
A lot of people when you think of hedge or screening are thinking a formal grouping of plants in a row sometimes clipped into a hedge. But say you wanted a hedge of maybe 15 feet, you could still you could still do magnolias, and maybe selectively prune them so they are kept in shape.
But for evergreen hedge, definitely the Southern magnolia would be one of your better ones. There are some upright ones, like ‘Hasse’ (above), which has a very columnar aspect to it. Those are some of the Southern magnolias you could prune, not with hedge shears, but you could hand prune them, and actually create a very tight hedge.
Q. At what time in their cycle would I do that?
A. I would say midsummer—not so late that when you prune them they flush out new growth that might get hit by fall frost. But not so early that the current season’s growth hasn’t hardened off. So I’d say the middle of summer.
Q. I also read in the new book that I can do a topiary of magnolia.
A. That again would be the same species—Magnolia grandiflora. I was on a trip one year, to Lake Como, and there were two Magnolia grandiflora maybe three stories tall and they were clipped into perfect gumdrops. They were incredible. They must have had to put up scaffolding to do that.
Q. [Laughter.] Oh my goodness.
A. And it takes, obviously, pruning every year to do that. You wouldn’t have to create three-story-tall gumballs, but say you had a courtyard and you wanted to create in the corners of the courtyard four clipped spires, you could take something like Magnolia grandiflora, maybe one of the diminutive ones like ‘Kay Parris,’ which has smaller stature and smaller leaves, and just do that tipping back once a year to create a denser habit over time, keeping it to the shape you want.
And you can even espalier them as well.
Q. And that’s not hedging exactly—but how does that work?
A. Again, the ones I have seen done best as espaliers are the Southern magnolia, but I think you could almost take any type of magnolia. This would be true of any kind of espalier in general: You would take a single stem, and prune off all the side stems so you have one central stem. Then you kind of pick the shape you want. Say that you wanted it to be tiered. You let it grow up 2 feet; you cut out the top, and wherever you cut it you will get new branches forming. So you would take a side branch on either side and start training that laterally.
The best way to do an espalier is actually to put up your form, maybe on the side of a garage. What I would do is put in some eye bolts vertically, and then string a wire through the eye bolts, and then do that horizontally as well. So my horizontal branches would follow the wire going through the eye bolts, and maybe every foot or so I would take a piece of cotton string or twine, and tie the branch to the form.
One, it helps you keep the geometry of the form, and then it helps you keep it flat to the house or building as well.
Q. A mutual friend of ours, Marco Stufano—he espaliers everything.
Q. We tease him about being a torturer because he’s always making plants submit to his will. Like witch hazels, on the fence—almost fan-shaped arms, and flattened to the fence. I imagine you could do this to magnolia as well.
A. I think the Southern magnolia is a little more pliable. The deciduous ones tend to be a bit more brittle, but I think you could take a yellow magnolia, like ‘Butterflies,’ and train it in that way with horizontal branches, or a fan, or whatever shape you want to do.
As long as you’re committed to the pruning of that, I think a deciduous magnolia against a gray wall, or a white or taupe-colored wall would be incredible.
Q. Beautiful. And some at more inclined toward tighter spaces—more fastigiate, or columnar, aren’t they?
A. So there are many cultivars. One of my favorites, which is named in honor of one of my favorite people, is ‘Judy Zuk.’ When I started at Scott Arboretum she was director there, in the late 80s, and then she moved on to be president and CEO of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Back in the 60s and 70s, they had a breeding program, and it was their goal to create the first yellow magnolia, which they did—one called ‘Elizabeth,’ which I mentioned earlier. It’s light yellow. But they had others in the series—one called ‘Lois,’ and one called ‘Hattie Carthan.’
And they had one that was never named, and for years it went under the numbered name BBGRC1164. People noted that this was very fastigiate magnolia, and it had some other attributes as well.
So when Judy was retiring, they named that numbered one in her honor. It gets maybe 20 feet tall and maybe 8 to 10 feet wide at maturity, but in its youth it’s very tight. It isn’t a true yellow, but the flowers are like a suffusion of orange and pink. They’re upright and chalice- or tulip-shaped.
Some magnolias are fragrant, but this one doesn’t have the fragrance of most magnolias. It’s a fruity fragrance like the cereal Fruit Loops.
A. So ‘Judy Zuk’ as far as the deciduous magnolias is really one of the best for tight spaces, because of its fastigiate aspect.
Another one that’s really good: If you like the saucer magnolias but you don’t have the room for a big, spreading one, theirs is one called ‘Lilliputian’ (above). It gets only about 10 feet tall and maybe 6 feet wide. The flowers are smaller than most of the saucer magnolias, but like the saucer magnolias, it’s incredibly floriferous and light pink. So that’s another tight one for small gardens. It would be perfect for a courtyard in New York City.
Q. Not that you like magnolias or anything, right, Andrew? I think you name 146 favorites in the book, and that’s probably a smattering.
I’m crazy about the so-called fruit, as is my local ruffed grouse, who visits when the seedpods are on the magnolias. The seedpods are what structurally?
A. They’re called a follicle, kind of this cluster of seeds. Each seed is encased in a fleshy red cover. I, too, like the fruits of magnolia, and some—like the Southern magnolia—and also some of our other native magnolias, like Magnolia macrophylla, or Magnolia tripetala, have these huge clusters of seeds that are in this kind of woody structure. [Above, Magnolia sieboldii fruit.]
The woody structure comes out kind of greenish, and fades this kind of whitish or cream color, and then it can go this rosy-red going into the fall—and that in itself I think can add a certain level of ornament to the tree. Now albeit you wouldn’t buy a magnolia just for the fruit—but it’s a nice added attribute with some of the species and cultivars. Not all of them have ornamental fruit.
Q. Well, the new book is luscious and makes you want to go stand in an arboretum full of magnolias in spring. Thanks, Andrew.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 25, 2016 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
enter to win the magnolia book
I’LL BUY A COPY of the new book “The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias” by Andrew Bunting for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment.
What magnolia(s) do you grow in your garden, and is there one you covet?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Sunday, May 1. Good luck to all; U.S. only.
(Photo credits: Magnolia ‘Golden Gift,’ Adam Wheeler, Broken Arrow Nursery; Magnolia grandiflora ‘Hasse,’ Kevin Parris; Magnolia ‘Judy Zuk, Josh Coceano; Magnolia sieboldii, Adam Wheeler, Broken Arrow Nursery; Magnolia virginiana var. australis-Lisa Strovinsky; Magnolia x soulangeana ‘Liliputian,’ Andrew Bunting; top pf page, Margaret Roach. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon links yield a small commission.)