The Magnolia Tree
Flowering trees are beautiful additions to every garden and among them Magnolias occupy a special place for their special beauty. They have some of the largest flowers of all the flowering trees and present a stunning spectacle with their picturesque branches wreathed in upright goblets of pink, purple or white. As many are quite hardy, there large flowers give an exotic, almost tropical and very dramatic note to gardens in cooler climates more familiar with flowering trees like cherries with their relatively small flowers. Gardeners divide Magnolias into two groups, evergreen and deciduous. Most of the evergreen types cannot be grown outside of the warmest states, so the deciduous forms are the ones most readily available to most gardeners.
Using Magnolias on your property
Magnolias are not difficult to grow, as many people believe, they are just a little choosy over where they grow. So to have a Magnolia makes your garden special and it is usually high on the wish-list of gardeners developing their gardens. Magnolias are small specimen trees which in nature grow in the partial shade of taller trees, so they fit best into gardens that already have some shade. Since they like a rich, organic soil they are sadly not particularly suitable for exposed, dry, sandy places. If you live in cooler areas a spot that is mostly sunny to partially shady is an ideal choice, but in warmer regions morning sun and afternoon shade is beneficial. Some protection from strong winds is also advantageous.
Because they bloom early in the year they should be placed in spots where they can be readily seen and will stand out. This is made easier by the fact that the other trees will still be leafless, but don’t make the mistake of hiding your Magnolia behind an evergreen bush.Give it the special spot its regal presence demands. It will fit particularly well into an area of your garden devoted to Azalea, Rhododendron and Hydrangea, as well as shade-loving perennials. A Magnolia in bloom will bring your neighbors around to admire and envy your beautiful flowering tree and for most home gardens a medium size tree, like the Jane Magnolia is a good choice. It will fit into a smaller space, but is large enough to have a real impact when flowering.
What is a Magnolia like?
Magnolias are usually small trees, although some can grow quite large. As they are slower growing than some other trees they take a little time to mature, but they are not as slow as is often suggested and will reach 15 feet or more in a relatively short time. They have the benefit of flowering when young, so even a baby tree may be smothered in bloom. They form a picturesque tree, often with several trunks and twisted branches forming a rounded crown extending low to the ground until quite mature. They are almost square, so that a tree 15 feet tall will often be 12 feet wide, more like a very large shrub. Some grow much larger and make full-sized trees.
The leaves are simple ovals perhaps 6 inches long and often emerge reddish in spring, turning green all summer and yellow or bronze in the fall. The bark is a typically a light grey color, quite smooth until the tree is of a substantial age.
It is the flowers that are the glory of these plants. They are large, being 6 to 12 inches in diameter, depending on the variety. They are often gently fragrant. Colors run the spectrum from pure white, through many shades of pinks, into purple and ending with dark reds. Very often the outside of the petals are a much darker shade than the inside, adding richness to the effect. When they first open the flowers are shaped like a wine glass and as they mature they open fully, revealing the beauty of the inside. Seeds are not produced very much, but sometimes small, almost cone-like pods can be found, with one or more red seeds inside, which ripen in the fall.
Hardiness and growing conditions
There are Magnolias available that are hardy all the way from zone 4 to zone 9. The deciduous ones are the hardiest but will also grow well in warmer areas into zone 9. Evergreen forms are only hardy in zones 7 or 8 and zone 9. So it is clear that deciduous Magnolias give the most choices when it comes to finding a plant that fits your zone. One of the hardiest is the Jane Magnolia, which will happily flower right into zone 4. Magnolias will grow in sandy, loamy or clay soils, but they do not like to grow in soils that are wet for long periods, or in ones that are dry, although well-established Magnolias are fairly drought-tolerant. Organic material is a valuable addition to the soil, and applying mulch around the root area every year or two is a very good way to achieve the best growth. Acidic to neutral soils or ones that are slightly alkaline, are the best for Magnolias.
Planting and initial care
When planting your Magnolia, remember that it is going to give you much pleasure for many years, so give it some care in return. Water it well the evening before you are going to plant. Dig a hole twice the width of the container or root-ball, and a little less deep that it. Add plenty of organic material, such as compost, rotted manure, rotted leaves or peat moss and a good handful or two of bone meal to the soil you remove. Take your tree carefully from the container or cut the ropes and unwrap the burlap. If there is loose soil on the top of the roots, gently scrape it off. If your tree was in a container, after removing it take a sharp knife and cut one inch deep from top to bottom at four places around the roots. This is to stop roots growing around the trunk and eventually strangling the tree. Place your tree in the hole, replace most of the soil and firm it down well. Add plenty of water and once it has drained away, add the rest of the soil but leave the top of the roots uncovered. Apply a few inches of organic mulch – like the rest of the material you mixed into the soil – over the roots. Do not use bark chips, pebbles or plastic.
Points of interest
Magnolias are considered to be one of the very first flowering plants to appear and they are so ancient they existed before there were any bees. So they are adapted to be pollinated by beetles, although when bees came along they found them attractive and certainly visit them. They were around 95 million years ago and some species alive today are 20 million years old. They are found in two distinct part of the world: China and East Asia; and southern parts of the US, Mexico and the Caribbean. Because of their great beauty gardeners have been developing different varieties for many, many years, so there is an enormous choice available.
One problem has always been the reluctance of Magnolias other than white-flowering ones to grow in colder areas, so breeders at the National Arboretum, Washington DC crossed different species to produce the Little Girl Series, which are extremely hardy and have strong flower colors. One of the very best is the ‘Jane Magnolia‘, which is very fragrant and has 8 inch flowers that are a rich red outside and white inside. They appear in early May while the branches are bare, giving a very dramatic effect. This Magnolia blooms over a long period, and unlike many others is tolerant of late spring frost, which can often destroy the buds of other varieties just as they are beginning to open. It forms and upright, multi-stemmed tree which grows vigorously to around 15 feet tall.
Once established, Magnolias need very little care. They normally should not be pruned, but left to develop naturally. During the first year or two make sure they are kept well watered, and after that do not let them get excessively dry. Apply thick organic mulch every spring, or every second spring, over the root area. There are very few if any pests or diseases to worry about. If planted in a lawn do not let the grass grow up to the trunk until the tree is quite old as the grass will steal nutrients from your Magnolia.
It may need a little more care to choose the right location and conditions for growing Magnolias, but these plants are so special that they will reward you for many years for that little care you give them. Every spring you will be amazed and delighted by the spectacle of those extraordinary, enormous blooms covering your tree like a giant candelabra and lighting up your garden for several weeks. Such a special plant deserves to be in every garden across the country.