There are few things more magnificent in early spring than a magnolia. Seeing the huge pink- and-white flowers silhouetted against an azure spring sky brings to mind a galleon in full sail, running before a fair wind.
In spite of such glamour they are admirably adaptable – as happy in a suburban street as on the lawns of an historic country house garden – and they range in size from Magnolia stellate, which is perfect for a small town garden, to the amazing Magnolia campbellii, which can be as big as a house. What you may not know is that not all magnolias are pink or pink-tinged; there is a whole collection of them that are pure white and even yellow.
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It is these varieties that form an exciting part of the planting at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley. RHS executive vice-president Jim Gardiner has been working at Wisley for decades and is a self-confessed (and widely respected) magnolia specialist.
He has travelled the world visiting gardens and plants in the wild and has brought all this knowledge back to Surrey. ‘Yellow magnolias were first developed in the 1950s at Brooklyn Botanic Gardens in New York,’ he reveals. ‘A remarkable woman called Lola Koerting crossed the native American magnolia (Magnolia acuminate) with various others and discovered that the yellow gene was dominant.’ The result was the development of some really corking trees. ‘We’ve planted lots at Wisley – the yellow ones tend to flower a bit later so are less likely to be damaged by the late frosts.’
The flowers may be one of the glories of spring and early summer, but, Jim explains, ‘It’s possible to have magnolias in flower in your garden for eight months of the year. They’re hardy – Magnolia “Yellow Lantern” is grown as a street tree in towns as diverse as Nantes in France and Malmo in Sweden – and there is one suitable for every size of garden.’ Make it your spring ambition – plant a magnolia, you will never be disappointed.
Find out about the best trees for early blossom
Above: Magnolia sieboldii, which does well in a shady garden.
Where to plant magnolias
Magnolias do best in full sun although some (in particular Magnolia wilsonii or Magnolia sieboldii) will be fine with some shade.
The evergreen Magnolia grandiflora is best grown against a sheltered wall.
Magnolias like a moisture-retentive soil but are not that fussy about whether it is alkaline or acid.
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How to plant magnolias
Choose a sheltered site.
Make sure that the hole is big enough, and loosen the soil at the bottom with a fork.
Ensure that the existing soil level is no deeper than the soil in the container in which the magnolia came.
Backfill with a mixture of topsoil and good compost.
Newly planted trees can take a few years to settle down before they flower. Keep the faith and mulch well; your patience will be rewarded.
Magnolia trees can also be grown in large containers.
Read our guide to planting trees
Pruning magnolia trees
Do not be afraid to prune, ideally just after flowering. Magnolias respond well and it enables you to try out the larger varieties in smaller gardens. It is best to prune little and often rather than leaving it a few years and then laying into it with a chainsaw.
Attempt to prune magnolia trees only between mid-summer and autumn.
First remove any shoots that are dead, damaged or diseased.
Do not prune the tree too heavily in one go or the plant will panic and send out lots of non-flowering shoots.
For size reduction prune over a few seasons.
Magnolia trees need lots of mulch – ideally every autumn they should get a good helping of compost, leaf mould or well-rotted manure. This feeds them up and keeps weeds down.
Magnolias have big leaves, which means that they need lots of water, especially when young. Some slow-release fertiliser in about March, when the buds begin to fatten, would not go amiss either.
Magnolias are quite easy to propagate. You can layer low branches by pinning them to the ground, where they will root. Alternatively, take softwood cuttings in the summer: they need to be overwintered out of the frost. You can grow them from seed, but bear in mind that it can take ten years to get from seed to flowering so not a good one for gardeners in a hurry.
Read our guide to taking softwood cuttings
Caring for magnolias
Magnolia roots are close to the surface so try not to poke around with a fork or hoe too close to the trunk.
Magnolias are susceptible to damage from late frosts. Unfortunately there is not much you can do to prevent this, apart from not planting them in frost pockets and choosing only the later-flowering varieties.
Magnolia tree varieties
Magnolia ‘Gold Star’
Creamy yellow, starry flowers in early to mid spring. (H 4-8m, S 2.5-4m)
Creamy yellow flowers, April-May (H 5-8, S 5-6m)
Magnolia ‘Judy Zuk’
Medium yellow flowers with pinkish base in May-June (H 4-8m, S 2.5-4m)
Yellow, tulip-shaped flowers in late spring (H 2.5-4m, S 4-8m)
Above: Magnolia 'Goldfinch', a delicate creamy yellow magnolia.
Pink and white magnolias
Abundant pure-white, star-shaped flowers in early spring. (H 1.5-2.5m, S 2.5-4m)
Scented, deep-mulberry-coloured, cup-shaped flowers in late spring (H 2.5-4m, S 1.5-2.5m)
Huge flowers (25cm across). often multi-stemmed (H 5-8m, S 3-5m)
Above: Magnolia stellata, a small variety that can be grown in a large container.
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Where to see magnolias
If you want to visit magnolia-laden gardens, you could make tracks for Cornwall in late March or early April, where you will find two of the most resplendent.
Among its magnificent collection, Trewithen has the largest-diameter Magnolia campbellii mollicomata in Britain, one of its 20 ‘champion’ trees (officially either the tallest or fattest of their type). Marvel, too, at the camellias.
Truro, Cornwall. 01726 883647, trewithengardens.co.uk
Caerhays is home to a national collection of magnolias, comprising more than 600 species and named hybrids. Caerhays’ historically important collection of Chinese plants, in 120 acres of woodland gardens, grew out of the work of the great plant hunters of the early 1900s. JC Williams of Caerhays received, in return for a generous contribution to George Forrest’s forays in 1911, seeds of magnolias, rhododendrons, acers, oaks and more.
St Austell, Cornwall, 01872 501310, caerhays.co.uk.
Did you know…?
Magnolias are native to both Asia and the Americas. If you think about it this is quite an odd bit of evolution in itself: how does a family of plants appear in two different places separated by thousands of miles of land and ocean? The answer probably lies deep in the ancient past when the continents were joined and, as they separated and (over the course of millions of years) drifted apart, each section took a few magnolias and the rest, as they say, is evolution.
Magnolia is a very ancient genus of plants and is thought to have been around up to 20 million years ago. (We know this from fossils of Magnolia acuminata). This is before bees were invented (by whomsoever invents such things) so the flowers developed to encourage pollination by beetles. However, beetles do not have the delicate touch that a gently buzzing bee has - for one thing they have to stomp all over the flower instead of hovering. As a result (and I am going to wax a little botanical here for a moment) their carpels are extremely tough.
Magnolia is also important in traditional medicine and has been used in various incarnations for treating rheumatism, wounds, asthma, malaria, nausea and even cracked feet and hair loss. I have no idea what the formulae and concentrations may be or even if they work so my advice is probably not to try this at home.
Magnolias are named after the French botanist, Pierre Magnol (1638-1715). He was not one of those dashing botanists that rush around the world risking life and limb in pursuit of the perfect flower. Instead, he was a rather chubby fellow with an expression more suited to a disappointed bloodhound than an explorer. He was Director and Professor of Botany at the Royal Botanic Garden in Montpelier and was the first person to publish the concept of plant families as we now know them - the idea that plants fell into groups united by their common features. A particularly tricky concept as the generally held belief at that time was that all species came about strictly according to the Book of Genesis.
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