Tulip or saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) and its many varieties and cultivars is the one we mostly see in our neighbourhoods. The profusion of large, perfumed, goblet-like flowers emerge tall and slender then open as wide as 25cm in white, pink, purple or rose-purple, while often retaining a white interior. It can grow up to 8m, so give it pride of place!
Star magnolia (M. stellata) is the party girl. The fragrant flowers are dainty and small (to about 10cm), with petals in white or many shades of pink that open out to form stars. But when flowering is at its peak in earliest spring, you can see the whirling skirts of a party of pretties determined to make their brief time on earth as lively as possible. It needs a dance floor about 4m wide.
Yulan magnolia or lily tree (M. denudata) is considered the most beautiful of magnolias but is less common is our gardens, perhaps because, as one of the parents of many magnolia cultivars, it’s quite slow growing and is smaller (to 5m). The flowers emerge upright and cuplike, then open to a lily shape, releasing a subtle citrusy scent.
Cucumber or blue magnolia (M. accuminata) produces exquisite yellow, tulip-shaped flowers about 10cm long. It can grow quite tall (about 20m), so imagine your tree smothered with yellow ribbons delivering a gentle lemon fragrance, especially if you live in a cool climate where it does well.
Wilson's magnolia (Magnolia wilsonii) is native to the Szechuan and Yunnan provinces in western China. It can be treated as a large shrub or small tree, and can grow up to 6 metres. Wilson's magnolia develops saucer-shaped, downward-facing flowers with pure white petals and a centre clump of rose-coloured stamens, which bloom in spring.
How to care for deciduous magnolias
Magnolias enjoy a temperate climate with a chilly, moist winter followed by a warm, moist summer.
Plant your magnolia in a spot that receives full sun or is partly shady in a northern or eastern spot with shelter from hot afternoon sun, hot winds and late frosts.
Deciduous magnolias prefer rich, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic.
Controlled-release fertiliser is best for acid-loving plants; give them a good feed in spring. You can also feed your magnolia in the autumn and winter with a soil improver, to encourage strong root development.
Magnolias require regular watering during their growing season and in hot weather.
Mulch annually in spring to help retain moisture in hot months and return nutrients to the soil.
Planting, design & flowering tips
- Plant your deciduous magnolia in spring, not autumn, because its roots are easily damaged when handled and will have the summer months to repair, which they can’t do in the winter. Your new plant may be tall and thin, so use stakes for the first year or two to support it.
- Magnolias can come as a single-trunked small tree or a multi-stemmed shrub. Think about the shape you want to suit your garden plans.
- Deciduous magnolias sometimes sulk for the first three to four years and refuse to flower. Cajole them by digging in good compost before planting.
Types of evergreen magnolias
The bull bay or southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) is a dense, dome-shaped tree with large, dark-green glossy leaves that are brown and velvety underneath. The big, bold but beautiful cup-shaped and wonderfully fragrant flowers start to emerge in late spring and continue through summer, making a distinctive and pretty polka-dot pattern against the rich foliage. They can grow up to 15m wide and 10m high, so probably aren’t suitable for the back garden. But over the years, many smaller and slender cultivars have emerged. These include ‘Little Gem’ that grows to about 4m, ‘Teddy Bear’ that grows to about 2m and is ideal for a container on your balcony, deck or courtyard.
Sweet bay Magnolia (M. virginiana) will lighten up your garden with its soft grey-green leaves that have a silvery underside. The small, white, highly perfumed flowers appear in spring with a blast, then sporadically in summer. Each flower closes at night, then opens in the morning. It’s semi-deciduous in cooler areas, evergreen in areas that have warm winters. Can be put in containers on a deck or in a courtyard.
Port wine magnolia (Michelia figo) is not strictly a magnolia, although it belongs to the same family, which is why it is such a delightful plant to consider. It produces deep, rich, port wine coloured flowers in spring and summer just inside the foliage, so can be used as a decorative hedge. The flowers are highly fragrant - more so in the evenings - and reminiscent of bananas, which is why it is often called the banana bush. It grows to about 4m. There is also a white or creamy flowering variety available called ‘White Caviar’ (Magnolia figo x yunnanensis).
How to care for evergreen magnolias
Evergreen magnolias prefer tropical, sub-tropical, warm climates or warm spots in cool temperate areas.
When it comes to soil, opt for rich, well-drained, and slightly acidic.
When selecting a site for your evergreen magnolia, choose somewhere that receives full sun to part shade.
Controlled-release fertiliser for acid-loving plants in spring.
Ensure reliable moisture during hot and/or dry periods, especially for young plants.
Mulch annually in spring to help retain moisture in warmer months.
How to grow magnolias in pots
- Choose only dwarf and small varieties.
- Use a pot at least double the size of your root ball, fill with quality potting mix and add water-storage crystals to help retain moisture.
- When planting, take care not to disturb roots.
- Position in full sun to part shade.
- Water deeply two or three times a week.
- During flowering, apply liquid rose food every one to two weeks.
- Apply fertiliser in autumn and spring.
How to prune your magnolia
Keep pruning to a minimum as wounds heal slowly. Do it only to repair damage to branches as soon as possible, although preferably after flowering. When branches are cut, they send up vertical shoots that ruin the tree’s natural shape. Also, in hot weather, exposed branches can become sunburnt and this may lead to dieback.
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