THE ONLY SHAME about magnolias is that so few varieties are widely grown. You will certainly have seen the overblown saucer kinds (called Magnolia soulangiana)—usually some lipstick shade of pink—and also the smaller-flowered stars (M. stellata, borne on a shrubbier plant to match the flowers’ scale). Even in my sleepy little town, big specimens of these are common.

The magnolias, evolution-wise, are among the oldest flowering plants on earth, though now scientists tell us that more than half of the world’s species of them are under threat of extinction because of habitat loss. Magnolias are longtime favorites of gardeners, and those in cultivation derive from many native American species, and others originating in Asia. The springtime-blooming magnolias are masters of defiance, seemingly unafraid to unfurl their giant blossoms even in the early weeks of spring. They do so well before their leaves appear, which in plant-speak is called being precocious. The spring-bloomers come from Asia, unlike the magnolias of America—M. grandiflora, the Southern magnolia, and M. virginiana, the sweetbay magnolia—both of which bloom in summer up north when their leaves are out. The former is evergreen; the latter almost evergreen, at least in warmer climates.

The precocious Asians are the most extravagant of flowering trees, both for their bloom size, the profusion of flowers they produce, and the intense fragrances many of them transmit, from lemony to sweet. Many of them also have good winter structure, and smooth gray bark, plus furry flower buds they carry all winter. They look like giant gray pussy willows, and are particularly beautiful in late winter when they begin to swell as flowering time approaches.

Among the whites, M. denudata, the Yulan magnolia, is very highly rated—the most elegant white of all. It can reach about 35 feet wide and high and each of its many flowers measures about 6 or 7 inches in diameter. The oldest Asian magnolia in cultivation (since 1780), the Yulan is one of the parents of the saucer types. ‘Wada’s Memory,’ a 20-foot fragrant hybrid, is another good white, as is sweet-smelling ‘Merrill,’ one of the Loebner hybrids. The many-petaled flowers of ‘Merrill’ are pleasing, but it blooms a little too early for my last spring frosts, so instead I planted its close cousin ‘Ballerina’ (shown in detail) another Loebner type, which flowers about 10 days later. It has done just fine.

With white scillas or white muscari carpeting the ground beneath them, it looks as if a giant, puffy cloud has settled in to hover above a carpet of fresh snow. And with my ‘Ballerina’, I got a happy surprise: hot acid yellow fall color in about half the years so far—not a common thing in magnolias, but very welcome when the fall weather allows.

Magnolias have thick, fleshy roots and resent rough handling, so if they are to be dug from a field, it must be done in spring to give the transplants time to recover and settle in before frost. Make clean cuts on any damaged roots so they can heal; left mangled, they weaken the plant and slow growth. Container-grown plants (whether magnolias or any others) will generally suffer less shock from root disturbance at transplant time, but if it’s a good-sized specimen you crave, you probably cannot have it in a plastic pot.

With some exceptionally fast growers, like ‘Butterflies’ (shown top and bottom), or ‘Elizabeth,’ two yellow-flowered selections from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s breeding program, and one of a number of beautiful recent yellow forms, it does not matter; you’ll have a sizeable tree in time. With others, it’s excruciating to wait, though magnolias are known for being good bloomers even when quite young (which can be a strange sight, like a little girl in Mommy’s oversized party clothes).

Give them sun, enough room to stretch out (they are often as wide as they are tall), and good soil that drains well but holds sufficient moisture for the plants to have a drink before it percolates away, and they will be happy for years and years. I have not had to do any major pruning with my specimen of ‘Ballerina,’ now about 25 feet tall, except to clean up bits of winter’s damage and take out vertical shoots called water sprouts and thin a little here as an aesthetic choice—an easy garden plant indeed. Two mail-order specialists with notable magnolia lists are Klehm’s and Gossler’s.


  1. Terri Clark says:

    I too love Magnolias and with a cool spring here in the Pacific Northwest we have had a long, slow show- In my garden I had to wait 15 years for Magnolia Sprengerii Diva to bloom. So worth the wait and especially magnificent from our second story window where they are best displayed against a threatening slate blue spring sky. I remember Roy Lancaster once saying in a lecture about a particular tree that it was “worth living for”.
    Ain’t that the simple truth.

  2. Laura says:

    I came to your blog from a link my Mom sent. We have frogs in our pond and are looking for more information. Anyway, I have been reading backwards in your blog and admiring your photos. I also love Helleborus and was glad when one finally survived winter here this past Spring. But, I’m posting a comment here cause this is the photo I most admire here on your blog. Magnolia trees don’t do so well this far north. But they are lovely and I’m going to try them again some year. We planted Rose of Sharon down the side of the driveway this Summer.

  3. margaret says:

    Welcome, Laura. The species/varieties that are hardy to Zone 4 (including stellata, salicifolia or soulangiana for instance) will still do best if they are in a spot where they don’t wake up too early, in my experience. Out in the full sun especially near the south side of a house where they will get warmed up fast in earliest spring, forget it.
    I have mine on the east/northeast side of my house, where they don’t get a lot of sun too early in the season, so they stay asleep (the buds that is) until the weather settles. A northern side of the house would also suit, unless it’s dark there all day of course. One of the hardiest of all is the species Magnolia kobus (I think it’s the cold end of 4 or even hardy to 3).
    So it takes experimentation, and the right microclimate on your property, even where they are technically hardy I think.

  4. Brandon Manuel says:

    I love magnolias, but here in the Northern Cape, South Africa it is a bit tough to grow. I dug a really huge hole for my grandiflora and filled it with manure and lots of organic matter. It grows really well, but the flowers suffer in the heat. I also have two other deciduous species, one was a gift and is a wonderfull sight in late winter. The other I bought last year and I am carefully watching its progress. Just a pity they are not widely available in SA.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Brandon, from the other side of the world. I know there are magnolias from the Americas and Asia, but apparently that is one plant that flora-rich South Africa doesn’t have. It’s so fascinating to hear from gardeners around the globe and learn about what is and isn’t common here or there. Thanks for visiting, and come again soon.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Hi Margaret — I just found your blog today when Pam (of Retrorenovation) included it in her Saturday letter. I am writing because the pride and joy of my yard is a magnolia tree that has probably been here since the house was built in 1946. The tree guys measured it to be 75ft wide last year when they came to feed it. My question is about what you called water sprouts. My tree is on a bit of a slope and on one side many little vertical shoots are being exposed. I thought they were roots and worried that being exposed would damage the tree. So, last fall I had them layered with top soil and I see it is all gone again and they are once more visible above the ground. So, what do you think? Should I worry and top them again? Thanks so much, and it is good to see you have a favorite local nursery, Loomis Creek, in your lists of sources and blogs. My other favorite place to go is Story’s on the other side of the river.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Elizabeth. Pam was so sweet to tell people about AWTG. Love her wild and crazy blog, Retrorenovation. I am unclear how tall/long these vertical things are at the base of your tree. Is it suckering from just against the trunk, very straight vertical twig-like growth? If so, I would cut those suckers down at the base (and more will form, sadly, as the water sprouts will (also vertical) on the branches in older trees. Magnolias also have thick roots that often are visible at the soil surface; I keep trying to keep mine under soil and mulch on its sloped downhill side, but to no avail. So tell me more.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Margaret — Sorry it took so long for me to come back and find your response. Don’t know what I have been doing, and apologize for not showing up with more information. Anyway, the vertical shoots from my magnolia tree are very long and grow along the surface probably 10-20 feet from the trunk. They are very narrow and have only begun to show above ground in the past few years when soil erosion has been more extreme. Looking forward to your visit with Pam, and some good first hand thoughts on what I should do here.

  7. Dianne Harris says:

    Sorry to say I do not have any magnolias in my yard. I keep thinking every year I will buy one that does grow too large. I really like them though.

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