Some decades ago, yellow flowering magnolias were the ‘holy grail’ of magnolia growers, much like the blue rose or the black tulip. It took a lot of skilled breeding to move beyond from the classic white, pink and rosy-red blooms that cluster densely on the bare branches of the cold-hardy magnolias – beautiful as they are. Eventually the barriers were overcome, and today we have several of these special plants available for gardeners who love beauty that is unique and different. Of them all, none has the deep-yellow and multi-petal flowers of the Butterflies Magnolia, which also holds back it leaves until the last flowers are fallen, maximizing the length of the full display, since new leaves can obscure the blossoms. This small tree is ideal for a lawn specimen, or in a bed behind later-blooming plants. It is also ideal for planting in the semi-shade at the edge of a wooded area, where it will blend in when in leaf, and stand out when in bloom.
The Butterflies Magnolia is a small deciduous tree, growing 15 to 20 feet tall, with a single main trunk, spreading about 12 feet wide in time. It has an upright form, with branches spreading out and up to form an attractive pyramidal crown. The trunk and stems are covered in a smooth gray bark, and the large buds and twisted young branches make the winter silhouette attractive too. The leaves emerge after the blooms, and they are large and shaped like long ovals. They are about 8 inches long, and a rich, dark green, so that even when not in flower this is a handsome tree.
In early spring – which can be early February in warm zones – the large, hairy buds burst into bloom, covering the branches with the surprise of yellow flowers. These are the richest and deepest yellow of any yellow magnolia, and stand upright on the branches, like tulips. They are up to 5 inches across, and they have between 10 and 16 narrow tapering petals, giving an unusually-full look for a magnolia. Each petal is folded into a ‘V’, and in the center of the flower is a dense cluster of golden stamens, rich with pollen. The effect is exactly as if a dense flock of yellow butterflies has chosen to settle on the tree, especially when a breeze ruffles the petals. Come close and you will smell the delicate scent of lemons.
The Butterflies Magnolia is hardy from zone 5 to zone 9, and although often associated with cooler areas, where they thrive, they also grow very well, and flower in late winter, in warmer zones, bringing a different look to gardens in hot zones. It grows best in deep, rich, well-drained soil, so add plenty of rich organic material to the soil when preparing the planting site. Mulch after planting, and each spring, keeping mulch away from the trunk. The root system is sensitive, so unlike the advice given for most trees – to cut through some of the roots when planting – remove your tree carefully from the pot and do not disturb the roots when you plant. Do not cover the root-ball with extra soil and keep the top just below where it was in the container.
Once established the Butterflies Magnolia is moderately resistant to normal summer drought, but regular deep watering is appreciated, and will give the best results. This tree is easy to grow, and it needs no special training or pruning to develop a beautiful form. Pruning should be limited to removing any small dead branches. It normally does not suffer from pests or diseases.
The Butterflies Magnolia was created by an intensive breeding program, carried out in the early 1980s by Philip J. Savage in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He had a rare seedling from Japan of the Yunnan magnolia, Magnolia denudata, which had cream-colored flowers. The tree from China normally has white and pink flowers, and it is a parent of the well-known saucer magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana. He took pollen from these flowers, and fertilized flowers on a cucumber tree, Magnolia acuminata. This tree is an American magnolia, growing through the Appalachians, in Ohio, and in southern Canada. The fruit is long, like a green cucumber, and the flowers are inconspicuous, but yellow-green. Twenty seedlings were grown, and among them was a beautiful tree with exactly the showy, bright yellow flowers the breeder was looking for. He called it ‘Butterflies’, and he patented it in 1991 (Plant Patent #7,456). The patent expired in 2011, and this beautiful tree is now freely available to everyone. Our trees are grown from stem pieces grafted to magnolia roots, and they are identical in every way to that original seedling tree.
Although it has been some years since it was discovered, the Butterflies Magnolia is still rare but very desirable. We are thrilled to have some beautiful young trees, and we know our clients will quickly order them. You too can enjoy the thrill of growing a yellow-flowering magnolia, but only if you act now, as our stock will soon be gone.