Magnolia trees are the most ancient of flowering plants, so ancient that they appeared even before bees did, so their flowers developed to attract beetles to pollinate them instead, and they developed a tough flower that is not easily damaged by such large, heavy insects. They are also so ancient that the continents have separated since they first appeared and so they are found in the Americas, China and the Far East, but nowhere in between.
They are also among the most prized of garden trees, with their beautiful and very large flowers appearing in spring on some and in summer on others. With perhaps 300 species growing from cold regions to the tropics, there are many to choose from, plus they have been hybridized to give us many beautiful garden plants, including some of the most popular ones. Wherever you garden is and whatever kind of garden you have, there is a magnolia tree that will grace it and be a seasonal joy to you, so let’s find out more.
What is a Magnolia Tree like?
Magnolia trees vary a lot – some lose their leaves in winter and have flowers on bare branches in spring, others are evergreen and flower in summer, so it can be hard to see what is common to them all. When they flower, however, it is very clear. The flower appears to be all petals, without those green outer parts that can be seen at the base of most flowers. The petals are quite thick and the flower is either bowl-shaped or flatter, like a soup-bowl. The central part is long and thick, and most helpful of all is that if you start to peel away the parts you will see they are arranged in a spiral pattern, not in separate levels as they are in almost all other flowers. The flowers are often white, but they can also be pink or purple and are usually darker in color on the back of the petals than they are on the inside. They also mostly produce interesting seed pods that look a little like pine cones, but contain large seeds that are sometimes colored bright red.
The leaves are simple ovals, plain green in magnolias that lose their leaves, but often thick, leathery and dark green with brown ‘fur’ underneath in those that don’t. They are all trees, often growing large, but some remain small and multi-stemmed, making those ones a great choice for smaller gardens.
Magnolia trees like moisture, although some are drought-resistant and they grow best in soil that is rich and doesn’t have a lot of limestone in it. There are Magnolia trees suitable for all the climate zones across the country, so these are trees that everyone can and should grow.
Some Popular Magnolia Trees
What you consider a magnolia probably depends on where you live. In the north-east and north-west magnolia trees usually lose their leaves in fall and flower in early spring on bare branches. These magnolias come originally from China and form a distinct group. They are also widely grown in Europe. Many hybrids have been produced, so that gardeners have many trees to choose from, ranging from wide-growing shrubs to upright trees.
For small gardens it is very hard to beat the Royal Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata), which comes from Japan and can be grown from zone 4 to zone 8. It forms a wide shrub that may after many years reach 15 feet but is usually smaller. This beautiful tree – smothered every spring in white blossoms – will grow in sun or part-shade and belongs in every garden, but especially in cold areas, where the choices for magnolia trees are more limited. For a pink color and a larger shrub, choose the Betty Hybrid Magnolia, or the Jane Magnolia, both of which have the star magnolia as a parent and are just as hardy.
Slightly less hardy, but still growing in zone 5, is the Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia × soulangeana) which is one of the most widely grown of all the deciduous magnolias. With its upright flowers, dark pink on the outside and paler pink within, it is a reliable feature of early spring or even late winter in milder regions, and will grow in a wide range of soils. This is an early hybrid from the 1820’s and it is still going strong.
Very different from all these are the American magnolias, native trees mostly form the south-east. The most famous and well-know is the Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) which grows from Florida to Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia. This beautiful tree has large, glossy, evergreen leaves with a dense brown ‘felt’ on the underside. The enormous white flowers can be a foot across and cover the trees all summer long. They give off a delicious perfume and are a symbol of the hot and languid summers in the south, and of plantation life. There are several improved varieties of this tree, including the Edith Bogue Southern Magnolia and the Blanchard Southern Magnolia. Although from the south, it can be seen growing in the West, as well as in Europe and England, where it is often grown against the wall of a house to protect it from unusually cold winters.
Another American native magnolia often seen in gardens is the Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). This beautiful tree was the first American magnolia collected and named during the colonial period and it grows throughout the south-east. It is evergreen in warm areas and deciduous in the north, where it will grow well up into zone 5. As its name suggests, this tree has very fragrant flowers which are large, if a little smaller than those of the Southern Magnolia. The underside of the leaf is gray in color, making it easy to tell these two trees apart.
Sometimes seen growing in warmer parts of California is the Champak Magnolia (Magnolia champaca). This tall, evergreen tree from India and Malaysia has pale orange flowers in the summer that release a powerful perfume. In fact this scent is the basis for ‘Joy’ perfume, the second biggest selling perfume in the world and is used by artisan parfumiers around the world.
With 300 species to choose from, it would take a large book to describe them all, but just these few can be so useful and attractive in every garden that there is hardy need for any more!