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.