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. Even when not in flower, they are beautiful trees, some with smaller, light-green leaves, and others with large, glossy leaves that create a real presence in the garden. Many are very hardy, and others grow well in the hottest places, so there are choices for everyone, no matter where you live. Their 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. The enormous, scented white flowers on the less-hardy variety really do give a sub-tropical feel, yet some of this type can be grown even in cooler regions. There are two main kinds of magnolia trees – those that lose their leaves in winter, flower in early spring and grow in cooler areas, and those that are evergreen, flower all summer and grow best in places without severe winter cold.
Wherever you live, whatever the size of your garden, and whatever your taste in flowers, magnolia trees have a lot to offer you, and these long-lived trees will never let you down, becoming more and more beautiful with each passing year.
The Best Features of Magnolia Trees
- Spectacular flowers in spring or summer
- Rich, glossy green foliage in the evergreen kinds
- Wonderful specimen or screening trees
- Wide range of colors and sizes for every garden
- Easily grown and long-lived in many climate zones
Using Magnolia Trees on Your Property
Magnolias look so exotic and bring such beauty to the garden, that some people think they must be hard to grow. Nothing could be further from the truth. With some thought about placement and a little care when they are young, they will soon become mature specimens that take care of themselves. Because of their great beauty, they make your garden special, and they are usually high on the wish-list of gardeners developing their gardens. Magnolias are small specimen trees which in nature often grow in the partial shade of taller trees, as well as growing well in full sun in all but exposed, dry, sandy places. Some protection from strong winds is also advantageous.
When thinking about where to grow the spring-blooming, deciduous magnolias, consider that they bloom early in the year, when other trees are still sleeping. They should be planted in spots where they can be readily seen and will stand out in all their glory. Find the right location is made easier by the fact that the other trees will still be leafless, so they can even go partly behind another deciduous tree that will leaf-out later. However, don’t make the mistake of hiding your Magnolia behind an evergreen bush, where you will be frustrated by it being hidden when in bloom. Give it the special spot its regal presence demands. Remember too that it can often be cool in spring when your tree will be in bloom, so you may not be out in the garden a lot. Place it where it can be seen from important windows of your house – that way you can enjoy it while still indoors. Deciduous magnolia trees fit particularly well into an area of your garden that is partially-shaded, where you might also grow beneath it azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, and a variety of shade-loving perennials. A Magnolia in bloom will bring your neighbors around to admire and envy your beautiful flowering tree. These trees are available in a variety of mature sizes, and for smaller gardens a medium size tree, like the Jane Magnolia, is an excellent choice. It will fit into a smaller space, but is large enough to have a real impact when flowering.
The evergreen magnolias also come in varied sizes, and with their beautiful foliage they are good choices for specimen trees in a lawn, to line a long driveway, or to create an elegant screen. They grow well in hot, humid conditions, and they are also resistant to salt-spray, making them good choices for coastal gardens. Once established they are very drought-resistant too. With the different range of sizes available, you can create a screen or avenue of a suitable size for your particular situation, so consider which is the best one when you order.
In colder areas, where evergreen forms growing in the open will suffer from cold, they can instead be grown successfully by spreading them on a wall. There they will be sheltered and look spectacular. The rich perfume of their flowers will drift through open windows, and they will cloth a wall with beautiful foliage all year. To grow a tree in this way, choose a sunny wall, preferably facing south. Run a series of wires from one end of the wall to the other, using strong attachments suitable for the type of wall – wood, brick or concrete. Space the wires 18 inches apart, all the way up the wall. Use wire-strainers so that you can tighten the wires over time, if they stretch. Plastic-coated wire is best. Plant the tree with its base right against the wall, and gently spread out the branches to left and right, attaching them to the wires with loose loops of durable string. Don’t tie tightly, as this will cut into the stems as they grow. As new stems develop, continue to spread them out and tie them in to the wall. Make sure you water younger trees growing this way regularly, as the base of walls often does not get much natural rain. Soon you will have a beautiful effect, and every bloom will be fully visible, opening for the sun and for your pleasure.
What are Magnolia Trees like?
Let’s talk about the deciduous magnolias first, as the two kinds are different from each other in many ways. The deciduous kinds are usually small trees, although some can grow larger. They are a little slower growing than some other trees, so they may take more 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 brief 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 slightly twisted branches forming a rounded crown, that stays 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 typically a light grey color, quite smooth until the tree is many years old.
It is the flowers that are the glory of these plants. They are large – 6 inches or so 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. Even yellow flowers are not available, although these are not very showy. Very often the outsides of the petals are a much darker shade than the insides, adding richness to the overall color effect of these beautiful flowers. When they first open, the flowers are typically shaped like a cup or tall glass, and as they mature they open fully, revealing the beauty of the inside. Some have broad petals, and other have narrower, strap-like petals. Seeds are not produced very much, but sometimes small, almost cone-like pods can be found, with several bright-red seeds inside, which ripen in the fall.
The evergreen magnolias are different in many ways. First of all, they are often larger trees, reaching 50 feet or more in height, and growing 30 feet across. If that sounds too big for your garden, don’t worry – there are also smaller varieties, like the Little Gem Magnolia, that stay a lot smaller and fit well into modern gardens with limited space. The most obvious and striking feature is the foliage. The large, oval leaves can be 12 inches long. The upper surface is deep-green, with a rich, healthy gloss, making the tree sparkle in the sunlight. The under surface is a real contrast. It is usually covered in a dense, thick felt-like covering of hairs, that are the color of chocolate. This help the tree grow in hot, dry locations by slowing down the loss of water from the leaves. The contrast between the glossy green upper surface, and the mat, brown underside is very attractive, and is a big part of the appeal of this tree. The foliage is usually so dense that the branches cannot be seen, but as the tree grows and develops a trunk, the bark is very dark-brown in color, smooth but more textured with age.
The flowers are the second glory of this plant. Throughout the summer, they grow all over the tree. At the peak there can be many, but for the other months they are scattered, with some always open. Just as the leaves are large, so are the flowers. As they open they quickly spread out into a flat plate of petals, often 12 inches across. The petals are thick and pure white in color. In the center of the flower is a cluster of bright-yellow stamens, and the whole flower gives off a rich, heady perfume. No wonder these plants are associated in our minds with the South, plantations, mint juleps and ‘Gone with the Wind’. Sometimes interesting seed-pods, that look a bit like pine-cones, will form after the flowers. In fall these surprise us by opening and showing large, bright-red seeds, which can hang out of the pod for a short-while on a silken thread, before dropping to the ground.
Growing Magnolia Trees
There is a wide range of different Magnolia Trees available, and we can find ones that are hardy all the way from zone 4 to zone 9. The deciduous ones are the hardiest, but they will also grow well in warmer areas that are not too dry, all the way through zone 9. The evergreen types of magnolias are hardy in zones 7, 8 and 9, although some varieties are hardy in zone 8. The deciduous magnolia trees give us the most choices for plants that will grow across different zones, but in warmer areas it would be a great mistake to neglect growing the evergreen species. Some of the hardiest of the deciduous kinds are the Girl Series, which will happily flower right into zone 4.
Deciduous magnolias grow well in both sun and partial shade. In more northern areas they do best with plenty of sun, although even there they will thrive in the shade of most deciduous trees. They also grow well on the east sides of buildings, where they get some direct sun in the mornings, and bright light later in the day. Further south, they can scorch in the hot afternoon sun, especially in dry conditions, so some shade from the hottest sun, or even dappled shade all day, is best for them.
The evergreen magnolias grow best in full sun, but they too will grow well in partial shade, with just a few hours of sun a day, or in the bright shade beside a building. In the colder zones they should be in full sun, to ripen the flower buds. Evergreen magnolias make great shade trees, and throw a dense, cool shade onto the hot sides of your home, or onto the lawn, where you can sit in their deep, cool shade on the hottest of days.
All the different kinds of 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 always dry. Well-established trees, especially the evergreen kinds, are drought-tolerant, and take care of themselves. Especially when planting, rich organic material is a valuable addition to the soil, and applying organic mulch around the root area every year when trees are younger, is a very good way to achieve the best growth. Acidic to neutral soils or ones that are only slightly alkaline, are best for most magnolias.
Magnolia Trees, especially the deciduous kinds, grow best in soils that are not constantly dry, but instead are moist, but not constantly wet. Newly-planted trees should be watered weekly for the first few months, and perhaps more often in very hot weather. Once established, in cooler areas natural rain will usually give them enough water, but in long dry periods a good soak with a hose will be very helpful to your trees. The evergreen kinds are more drought-resistant, and although they need the same care during their early years, once established they will survive long dry spells with no problem.
Magnolia trees are usually described as having a moderate growth rate. This means that when young they will grow by a foot, or even 2 feet, a year. This rate of growth will continue while the tree is young, but as it approaches 20 years of age it will begin to slow down, and older trees grow just a few inches a year. This is especially true of the deciduous magnolias, where older trees develop a dense crown, with most of the growth going into that, rather than adding height. In the evergreen magnolias, the growth rates of different forms are very variable. Those that are going to become full-sized will add one or two feet a year for many years, while smaller forms may grow quickly when very young, but soon settle down to adding just a few inches a year.
This tendency to slow down is great for gardens – a good-sized tree develops quite quickly, but it will be a very long time before a tree reaches its full height, so even if the space you have is a bit small for the ultimate height of your tree, it will be decades before that might become a problem. Older trees can be trimmed, so even then the height is controllable, and unless the space is very small, ultimate size is rarely going to be a problem, if you choose your variety wisely.
Pests and Diseases
Like all plants, magnolia trees can suffer from pests and diseases, but attacks of any significance are very rare. These trees have an ancient lineage, and they have had millions of years to evolve defenses against pests and diseases. It is very unlikely you will see any serious problems with your trees. Sometimes, if trees are grown in soil that is too alkaline, yellowing of the leaves may be seen. If this happens, treat the trees with a product for acid-loving plants, such as chelated iron. This will allow the tree to absorb the nutrients it needs to remain healthy. Use this each spring, and again in late summer if the yellowing is severe.
Different Magnolia Trees for your Garden
There are many different types of magnolias grown in gardens, and there are some suitable for all kinds of locations and climates. Here are some of the most important ones:
There are several species of magnolia that lose their leaves in winter. These mostly come from China and Japan, where they grow in woodlands and on hill-sides. Hundreds of varieties have been developed from them, and it is these, rather than the wild species, that are mostly grown in gardens.
Magnolia x soulangeana
This is the most widely grown deciduous magnolia, and it is a hybrid of the following two species:
- Magnolia denudata is called the lily-tree or Yulan magnolia. It grows wild in central and eastern China, and for almost 1500 years it has been cultivated in the grounds of Buddhist temples. It grows into a rounded tree no more than 30 feet tall, and it has white flowers in early spring.
- Magnolia liliiflora grows in south-western China, and it is called the Mulan magnolia, or purple magnolia. It is a small tree growing to just 12 or 15 feet tall, with flowers of a rich purple color.
These two trees had been brought to France in the 18th century, and in 1820, a retired officer from Napoleon’s army called Étienne Soulange-Bodin crossed these two species at his château outside Paris. The resulting tree is very widely grown in gardens, and as well, since seedlings grown from these trees produce variable flowers, many new varieties – up to a hundred – have been developed around the world.
Known as the Saucer Magnolia, this large shrub or small tree produces flowers in very early spring, on the bare branches, before the leaves emerge. Depending on the variety, the flowers may be white, pink, or purple, often with darker shades on the outside, and lighter shades inside. It is more tolerant of alkaline soils than many other magnolias, so it can grow easily in many gardens.
This, and it close relative Magnolia kobus, are called the Star Magnolia, because the petals of the flowers are narrow but long, and radiate from the center of the flower in a star pattern. It grows as a small to medium-sized shrub no more than 10 feet tall, with white flowers covering the bare branches in very early spring, from an early age. This is one of the hardiest magnolias, growing and flowering well even in zone 4. It grows well in most soils, and even grows in urban conditions, making it one of the easiest magnolias to grow almost anywhere. There is a variety called ‘rosea’, which has pink flowers.
The Girl Magnolias
This group of 8 different magnolias was developed at the National Arboretum, Washington in the 1950s. It was developed to deal with a specific problem growing deciduous magnolias in colder areas. Although the trees are hardy, and survive cold winters well, once the flower buds begin to develop they are sensitive to even light frost. Because they develop on the trees so early in the year, late frosts – which occur in many cold parts of the country – can destroy the blooming even before it begins, or when it has barely begun.
To overcome this problem, two scientists at the National Arboretum, William F. Kosar and Dr. Francis de Vos, made hybrids from the hardy star magnolia, and one of the parents of the saucer magnolia, Magnolia liliiflora, which we have already described. They used several varieties, with different flower colors and forms, of these two species in different crosses, to produce the biggest range of colors and flowers in their seedlings. They flower one or two weeks later than most other varieties, so they usually miss late frosts, and flower successfully in areas where others will usually be killed. Because of the star magnolia parent, the flowers are more open and spreading, showing off the paler colors within the flower.
|The Little Girl Series Hybrid Magnolias|
|Name||Flower color||Parent One||Parent Two|
|‘Ann’||Pinkish-red||Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’||Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’|
|‘Betty’||Reddish-purple||Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’||Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’|
|‘Judy’||Pink||Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’||Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’|
|‘Randy’||Purplish-pink||Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’||Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’|
|‘Ricki’||Reddish-purple||Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’||Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’|
|‘Susan’||Purplish-red||Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’||Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’|
|‘Jane’||Dark purple||Magnolia liliiflora ‘Reflorescens’||Magnolia stellata ‘Waterlily’|
|‘Pinkie’||Pink||Magnolia liliiflora ‘Reflorescens’||Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’|
After testing these plants for several years, they released them in the 1960s, and they are easily recognized because they all have girl’s names. Among the most popular are ‘Jane’, with dark-purple flowers, ‘Betty’ with reddish-purple flowers, ‘Ann’, with pinkish-red flowers, and ‘Randy’, with flowers that are more purple-pink in color. All of them form small trees, ideal for smaller gardens, and they will grow well across a wide area from zone 4 to zone 8. They are undoubtedly the top picks for American gardens, top choices among the many different kinds of deciduous magnolias available.
Most evergreen magnolias grown in gardens are derived from the Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora. This tree is native to the southeast, from North Carolina down into Florida, and west into Texas and Oklahoma. Old wild trees can be 90 feet tall, although garden trees are usually much smaller. It grows in areas close to water, but not in it – this tree does not like constant wet soil. The leaves are up to 8 inches long, glossy above and with a brown, felt-like underside. The flowers are up to 12 inches across, and richly perfumed. They bloom throughout the summer. There are three main reasons why the wild tree, although attractive, is rarely grown in gardens. One is its size. Secondly, trees take many years to begin flowering, and must grow to a large size first. Thirdly, they are not very hardy, so they cannot be grown in many parts of the country. So many different varieties – called ‘cultivars’ – have been developed, that overcome some or all of these issues. Here are the most important and valuable of them:
‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ – named after Ray Bracken, and developed by him in the 1960s in South Carolina, this is a smaller, very compact form, and it is also among the hardiest, growing well in Southern Ohio and on Long Island. The leaves are narrower than in the wild tree, with a very thick, dark-brown felt on the underside. The flowers are smaller, around 6 inches across, but they are profuse for many months.
‘D.D. Blanchard’ – this variety began at Robbins Nursery in North Carolina, and it is notable for its upright form, with a single central trunk. The result is that although it will grow tall, it can be planted in a narrower space than other varieties. The flowers are 8 inches across.
‘Edith Bogue’ – this variety, named after Edith A. Bogue, a gardener in Florida, is perhaps the hardiest variety. It was introduced into New Jersey in the 1920s, and has been widely grown in colder regions ever since. It can withstand temperatures as low as minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The Edith Bogue Southern Magnolia only grows to around 35 feet tall, and it forms an elegant pyramidal shape. This variety is a top-choice for colder areas.
‘Kay Parris’ – this is a smaller variety, growing to around 25 feet tall in time, but staying smaller for many years. It is completely hardy in zone 6, bringing the Southern Magnolia to many gardeners who thought it was impossible to grow one. It is a cross between ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’.
‘Little Gem’ – this is perhaps the smallest variety available, and it blooms when just 3 or 4 feet tall. It is ideal for smaller gardens, and also for growing in large pots and tubs. It only grows 12 to 15 feet tall, and 4 feet wide, and the leaves are only 5 inches long. The flowers are up to 6 inches across. This variety was created by Warren Steed, from seeds he collected in the town of Candor, North Carolina. He grew them at his nursery and in 1966 released ‘Little Gem’ to gardeners. It remains an extremely popular variety.
Although this species of evergreen magnolia was the first one sent to Europe from America, it is not as widely grown as the southern magnolia. This is a pity, as it is a handsome tree, and is much hardier than its cousin, as it will grow throughout zone 5, and it is found naturally as far north as New Jersey. The flowers of the Sweetbay Magnolia, as it is called, are creamy-white, up to 5 inches across, and they are very strongly perfumed with the smell of vanilla. A tree will perfume the air hundreds of yards away, making it a great tree to bring beautiful scent to your whole garden. In southern areas it is evergreen, but in colder regions it can lose some or all of its leaves in winter, while the stems and buds remain quite hardy. This tree is a great choice for more natural landscaping and for planting in woodlands on your property.
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 keep the top of the roots a couple of inches above the level of the surrounding soil. 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.
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 completely dry. 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. Magnolias need no pruning, in fact they develop best if left to grow naturally. These trees develop ‘personalities’, and every tree looks different, depending on the exact growing conditions, light levels, wind, and other factors. It is a great idea – and saves a lot of work – to let this happen naturally to your trees as they grow and mature.
Magnolia trees come naturally from areas where other trees grow. In nature, each year leaves fall from these trees, rotting into the ground. As a result, they like soil with plenty of rich organic material in it. This will have been added when you planted your trees, but it needs regular replacement to keep the levels high. You should spread rich organic mulch over the whole root area every spring, or at least every second spring. This is especially useful for the deciduous kinds of magnolias, but the evergreen ones too will benefit, especially when they are younger. Suitable materials include garden compost, rotted leaves, well-rotted animal manures, composted bark, or peat-moss.
Newly-planted trees should be watered once or twice a week, depending on the weather. After the first season this can be reduced to when the soil has begun to dry a little, but young trees should not be allowed to become completely dry. A regular supply of water will give you the maximum growth-rate from your tree. Don’t water if the soil is already wet, as air must go into the soil too, to keep the roots healthy.
During the early years, using a fertilizer regularly will produce the fastest-growth and the healthiest trees. Young trees can be fed with a liquid fertilizer suitable for flowering trees, and older trees can be fed with solid or granular fertilizers, as a larger tree will quickly use up all the nutrients in liquid forms. The regular application of that organic mulch will also help feed your tree, and if your soil is naturally rich and fertile, that material will be sufficient after a few years – no additional fertilizers will be needed.
Normally it is not necessary to prune a magnolia tree. The only time it is needed is to control the form your tree takes. Mostly these trees develop two, three, or even more separate trunks. If you want a single trunk tree, then the strongest stem should be staked and trained to form it. Don’t remove the unwanted branches immediately. Trim them back gradually, over several years, so that their growth feeds that main trunk until it is well-developed. The only other pruning needed is to remove a dead branch, should one be seen. Although pruning tends to make longer, stronger shoots, these often do not flowers for several years, so in the long-run you will not gain anything by cutting your tree. Just let it develop naturally.
Points of interest
Magnolias are known to be one of the very first flowering plants to appear and they are so ancient they existed before there were even any bees. For this reason, they are adapted to be pollinated by beetles, although when bees came along they too found them attractive and certainly visit them. They first appeared 95 million years ago and some species alive today are 20 million years old. They are found in two distinct part of the world: many are found in China and East Asia; and a second group is found in the southern areas of the USA, in Mexico and on islands of the Caribbean. They have been grown in gardens and temples of China for many centuries, at least back to 600 A.D., and probably earlier. Many of the Chinese species were brought to Europe and the USA by different famous plant explorers over the last few hundred years.
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 special plants deserve to be in every garden across the country. Take a look at our selection. It varies from season to season, so if we are out of stock, please come back later, our stock is constantly changing as we receive new, top-quality material from our suppliers. Whatever our current stock, you can be sure that the trees we have are carefully chosen to be the very best varieties. Established and reliable, the forms we carry have always proven their worth in different areas across the country. Buy from the Tree Center with confidence.