How to grow spring-flowering magnolias

So here we are in the latter part of March, heading toward April. That means it’s spring, more or less, for a lot of us, right? Here in Missouri we had a very warm and very dry February (excellent for housetraining young puppies), followed by a much (much) colder March. Well, sometimes that happens! But if, like me, you are especially fond of the enormous Magnolia genus, which contains basically all the true aristocrats of the spring garden – I may be a bit biased, but anyway – what should you do if your spring weather is highly variable and uncertain?

You have, I believe, two options:

1) Plant half a dozen trees of just one variety. Better yet, a dozen.

Pick one of the big trees if you have space, one of the small trees / large shrubs if you don’t. I recommend the common saucer magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana, which is quite flawless in beauty and fragrance. If you prefer something that will puzzle everyone walking or driving by, you might opt for the much (much) rarer Yulan magnolia (M. denudata). For the smaller area, you can’t beat ‘Ann.’ Unless you are not into fuchsia. In that case, perhaps a star magnolia (M. stellata) or the M. x loebneri hybrid, either of which will give you paler and more delicate colors.

[Side note: there are about 200 recognized species in the Magnolia genus. The ones that have an x in the middle of their names, like Magnolia x soulangeana, are hybrids between two or more of these species. Magnolia x soulangeana was produced via a cross between Magnolia denudata x Magnolia liliiflora, for example.]

I have to say, if you have half a dozen – better yet, a dozen – magnolias of one kind all blooming in one yard, you will stop traffic. In a good year.

In a bad year, you will see every. single. flower. turn to brown sludge right before the flowers quite open. Drivers will turn their heads away rather than endure the sight. You will keep your shutters closed for a week or two because you just can’t bear it.

Sound too chancy for you? Then you have another option:

2) Plant half a dozen or a dozen different kinds of magnolias. Although the timing of your magnolias will vary every year, the relative timing should be predictable. You are not so much trying to get trees that bloom after the last spring freeze — the last spring freeze can occur any time from mid-February to late April, and refusing to plant anything that blooms before May means you will miss out on essentially all of the most beautiful magnolias. Instead, you are trying to ensure that no matter what crazy weather you have, at least some of your magnolias will bloom before or after periods of freezing lows.

First to bloom: the Yulan, M. denudata, the lily magnolia, one of the parents of the great saucer magnolia. Click on the photo and it should blow up for you.

These big trees are best appreciated against an evergreen background or with a brick wall behind them or something of that kind. The white flowers are not as showy against the gray branches of deciduous trees or against blue sky as the darker colors. However, the individual flowers are perhaps the most beautiful of all magnolia flowers.

This year the Yulan opened its flowers for me on February 20th. This was during the warm part of February. A cold front shut the Yulan down after four days of glorious bloom. If you don’t think four days of splendor are welcome in late February, well. Although it is, as I say, possibly the most beautiful magnolia, I should add that the Yolan has only the very faintest fragrance.

At the time the Yulan hit its stride, the saucer magnolias were juuuust cracking their buds. ‘Ann’ and the M. stellata and the M x loebneri hybrid and ‘Butterflies’ were buttoned up tight. Thus, the freeze that closed down the Yulan froze the saucer magnolia flowers in the bud and the entire display was lost.

The difference in bloom time between the Yolan and the saucer is about a week. In most years, one or the other will have a chance to bloom. One can’t count on both putting on a show in the same year, not that it doesn’t happen from time to time. If we don’t happen to get a cold front coming through, they’ll be beautiful for ten or twelve days (each).

I will add that in a genus known for precocious bloom, my Yulan took about ten years to bloom. Ten! Years! I thought I might have the only non-blooming Yulan magnolia in the world. It is now beautiful beyond compare, but good heavens, it should be embarrassed, letting tiny baby magnolias bloom all around it.

Second to bloom: A week after the Yulan, the saucer hits its stride. It’s just a matter of whether you beat the cold by blooming before or after a front moves through. This year, the saucer magnolias would have been in full and glorious bloom around February 25th if the weather had cooperated. Honestly, though they’re everywhere, the saucer magnolia is hard to beat. It’s very beautiful in a good year, and the fragrance is lovely.

Third to bloom: Magnolia x loebneri is a cross between M. kobus and M. stellata. It is a little thing, more a shrub than a tree, which holds its little buds tight shut just until the saucer magnolia has had a chance to get zapped. Then it opens up and, surprisingly cold-hardy, puts on a fantastic display of many-petalled unscented flowers for about two weeks unless the nightly lows dip several degrees below freezing. Mine is protected by cedars and so may be a little more cold-hardy than some.

This year, this hybrid opened up on March 2nd and was still blooming its heart out March 10th.

You can see the M stellata genes in the character of the flowers, which are many-petaled. This is my mother’s favorite magnolia.

I will just add here that no Magnolia with a significant percentage of M. stellata genes is going to be as drought tolerant as a saucer or the (many) saucer hybrids. The star magnolia and many of its hybrids respond to severe drought by looking perfectly fine until one morning they suddenly drop all their interior leaves, retaining only the leaves on the tips of the branches. This obviously reduces transpiration and thus conserves water, but jeez, if they would only tell you to get out there with a hose this would not be necessary.

After a leaf-dropping episode, these magnolias will regrow their leaves. I’m not sure they can afford to do this more than once a year, though, so if we have an early drought that pushes them into this grouchy behavior, I will water them during the later drought that we can generally count on during August every year.

In contrast, all the other magnolias just go truckin’ on without missing a beat. So that’s something to keep in mind if you generally get a summer drought. I’ve pretty much sworn off any more magnolias with a lot of star magnolia in them, even though the M x loebneri is particularly nice.

Fourth to bloom: Little ‘Ann.’ Not so little now, but a biiig shrub rather than any kind of tree. I’d guess my mature ‘Ann’ is about, oh, say ten feet high, maybe twelve, and about the same width. This is a saucer hybrid and it shows. ‘Ann’ is only a little behind the M x loebneri hybrid, and in fact not much behind the saucer magnolia. But ‘Ann’ is distinctly more cold tolerant than the saucer and will hold onto something of a display after the saucer has lost every flower. Also, ‘Ann’ will rebloom a bit later in the summer. This isn’t a fantastic show, but it’s something. I will add that Japanese beetles will eat the summer flowers, so if those are a pest for you, don’t get too excited about the reblooming. For us, Japanese beetles kind of come and go. Depends on the year.

I have started two cuttings of ‘Ann’ from my first plant. Here is my baby that is about five or six years old, just about ready to hit its stride, the day before the flowers froze:

Fuchsia is not really my favorite color, and the flowers are not noticeably scented, but despite these drawbacks ‘Ann’ is my favorite magnolia. She is just never any trouble, and most years she puts on a show. Not this year, alas, but I think this is the first time she has completely failed. Plus ‘Ann’ has very dense leaves and looks full right down to the ground. Birds like nesting in her. I have successfully started two cuttings and could find a place to put more, though I would rather try propagating some of the others this spring.

‘Susan’ is supposedly very, very similar in flower but blooms much later, like a month later. I should probably get one to see if it could give me a show in years when the weather shuts ‘Ann’ down. However one problem with the late-blooming magnolias is they will be leafing out before they bloom. The flowers do have more visual impact if the tree blooms before leaves appear.

‘Jane’ is also said to be very similar to ‘Ann’ and blooms, according to books, midway between ‘Ann’ and ‘Susan.’ However, I have a ‘Jane’ and for me it is indistinguishable from ‘Ann,’ so I don’t know if the nursery got mixed up about what they sold me or what. The better nurseries guarantee their stock is true-to-name, but I wouldn’t say I’m sure about this one.

Moving on:

Fifth to bloom: The star magnolia, M. stellata. Mine, a variety called ‘Waterlily’ is very slow-growing and may never get taller than me at this rate. It’s a good choice if you don’t have much space, but I have seen some individual star magnolias that eventually got fairly sizable. The flowers are not fragrant.

Click on the image to blow it up. This picture was taken a couple of years ago, but the shrub is hardly bigger now. I should have posed a dog beside it so you could get the best possible idea of its size. Definitely my smallest magnolia, and I don’t expect it ever to catch up even to ‘Ann.’

Sixth to bloom: The yellow-flowering ‘Butterflies,’ which has flowers that resemble those of saucer magnolias except in color. It’s among the brightest, darkest yellows of the magnolias currently on the market. It’s a hybrid of Magnolia acuminata (the cucumber magnolia – no, I don’t understand the name either) and Magnolia denudata (the Yulan). I imagine it may get to be a sizeable tree given the parents, though mine is a baby.

This year, ‘Butterflies’ would have bloomed around March 12th except that we started getting nights below twenty degrees right then and you know, hardy-flowers-for-a-magnolia does not mean it will take that kind of thing with equanimity. So, nothing this year, alas.

I do have two other spring-flowering magnolias, the blushed white ‘Angelica’ (M cylindrica x M ‘Sawada’s Pink’ – the latter is a Yulan hybrid), and ‘Woodsman’ (M. acuminata x M. liliiflora). Neither of these looks like it’s going to flower this year – they have only been in the ground one full year. We’ll see what kind of growth they put on – I would love to get one or two cuttings of both if I can.

Way later to bloom

If you want to skip lightly over the dangers of spring frosts, Magnolia sieboldii blooms in late spring / early summer.

However, the M. sieboldii is just not all that showy. The flowers are held downward and are partially covered by the leaves. Plus my specimen is not thriving. Too wet last year? To much drought the year before? Hard to say. If it dies, it will be the second of this species I have lost. So I must reluctantly dis-recommend the species unless you are really interested in unusual magnolias and think your thumb is greener than mine. Personally, I am planning to avoid planting any other trees with significant M sieboldii parentage because why court problems?

The Southern magnolia has enormous flowers, and many cultivars are pretty hardy these days, easily hardy enough for Missouri. But as is typical with summer-flowering magnolias, this species really does not put on a show. It opens just a few flowers at a time over an extended period, which is fine, but simply cannot give you the traffic-stopping potential possessed by the showy spring bloomers.

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9 thoughts on “How to grow spring-flowering magnolias”

  1. They are lovely, but I am pretty sure here in RI it would be brown sludge every time. Unless I build a walled garden, which I would like, but which is probably not going to happen…..

  2. Glorious!
    There are a number of hardy varieties that would do fine in RI–there are even ones that do fine in exposed hillsides in NH. (My parents have one.)
    M. tripetala is even native to your region, or nearly so. The issue isn’t weather. It’s soil: They like dark soil, not coastal sand. (I grew up in NJ and grew to love the native tripetala–twisty branches with huge droopy leaves and giant, slightly stinky flowers to match. Suitable for pleasantly haunted graveyards. I transplanted a number of seedlings to my parents’ house.)
    M. acuminata would also probably do well there, though it’s less exotic (and more conventionally attractive.)

  3. In past springs, we’ve had people stop and take photos of our neighborhood saucer magnolias. This year, as one friend put it, they look like trees full of dead bats.

  4. My pick for haunted graveyards are old Osage oranges (Maclura pomifera). They have a wonderful spooky look if you have a whole grove of them. I wonder if you could get M tripetala, Osage oranges, and live oaks to all grow in the same place? That would be the haunted-est graveyard ever.

  5. Also, one idea is to look around for Magnolias that have M acuminata or M tripetala as a parent, something showier as the other parent.

    Great nurseries for Magnolias include Klem’s Song Sparrow Nursery, which grows their magnolias on their own roots, which I prefer. I’ve got several from them. The hard part is narrowing down what you will choose.

    Also Honey Tree Nursery has a lot of magnolias, though I’ve never ordered from them. Great pictures on their site, though.

  6. Those are gorgeous! Now I appreciate the magnolia.

    We’ve got some variety of magnolia around here (N. Calif.) as street trees, but they never look like any of those. They never drop their leaves to show off the flowers properly.

    Around here it’s fruit trees and natives like ceanothus showing off right now. .

  7. Hmm. So adding zone five as a restriction on the magnolia search on that nursery site doesn’t do much to cut the number of varieties. Apparently most magnolias aren’t so southern as I had thought. So even New England (except the Cape and other sandy areas) is in prime territory. Who knew?

  8. We’re Zone 5. Granted, 5b. Lots of choices for Zone 5. I imagine we see the brown mush thing a bit more often than Zone 6, but the trees are often very hardy.

    I didn’t know that magnolias disliked sandy soil. We don’t have that; it’s nearly all heavy clay loams here, so it never came up.

    Elaine, yep, see what you miss by not having a winter?

    Most of our fruit trees also got zapped in flower this year, because of having been teased to flower early by our warm February. Right now I’m looking thoughtfully at the peaches, wondering if by any chance their buds might still be okay. They weren’t open (and still aren’t) and the buds look surprisingly normal for having such a hard freeze.

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