Magical magnolias

Magnolia ‘Iolanthe’

Autumn is not the obvious time to think about magnolias, after all, they bloom in spring. But National Tree Week begins at the and of the month and we all know the importance of planting trees. A tree in the garden offers so much: shade, privacy, habitats for wildlife and so much more, including converting carbon dioxide to wood!

Look around Nags Hall and there will be lots of trees, most of which will make your garden more beautiful. It is often said that native trees offer most to wildlife but I disagree; many introduced trees are just as beneficial for wildlife. And many wild, native trees are far too big for the average garden – few gardens have room for an oak or beech. Many gardeners also want something a bit different or seasonally spectacular and magnolias are the obvious choice.

Here I have to admit that magnolias are not the best choice for wildlife. The flowers are not going to attract masses of pollinators, the fruits, which are not reliably produced, have no benefit either and, being ‘foreign’, they don’t offer much to native insects. But that also means they don’t get attacked by insects, sometimes called pests! But a magnolia is a large shrub or tree so it will offer somewhere for birds to perch or to hang a bird feeder so all is not lost!

While it is basically true that magnolias do not thrive in alkaline soils (pH of more than 7), slightly alkaline soils will suit most if you amend the soil with lots of organic matter. Dry, sandy soils can be a problem, but again, lots of organic matter can help. Heavy loams are perfect, but make sure you fork in plenty of organic matter when planting. Can you see a theme here? Most soils are suitable, especially if they are not too dry in summer or waterlogged in winter.

Most magnolias bloom in early spring and the open flowers are prone to damage by late frosts. I spend all spring worrying about my magnolia flowers, though now the trees are getting bigger and I can’t count all the buds on my fingers, I am relaxing a bit more. I still get upset when the flowers are ruined by frost but it is almost inevitable. Some magnolias, such as M. stellata, bloom over a longer period, so the whole display is rarely ruined. And there are late-flowering kinds that often miss the coldest weather. The ‘new’ yellow magnolias are among the best and their pastel yellow flowers are a nice contrast to the others.

‘Daphne’ is one of the best of the yellow magnolias and is compact

Although Magnolia stellata is the sensible choice, I have not yet planted one. I seem to plant lots of white flowers and spring is full of white, yellow and blue so pink magnolias are especially valuable. I promised myself that I would plant one magnolia each year, though I have actually exceeded this. I have to say that yellow ‘Daphne’ is the one that gives me the most pleasure and the flowers have never been affected by late frosts.

One that was a ‘must’ is ‘Leonard Messel’ which was raised at Nymans gardens and introduced in 1955. It is a hybrid of Magnolia stellata and the flowers are similarly strappy, but of a wonderful rich pink. It is easy to please, flowers when young and is compact enough for any garden.

The pretty flowers of ‘Leonard Messel’

All these are good choices but magnolias are so valuable because they have the largest flowers of any hardy tree. So it is understandable that people like magnolias with big, tulip-like flowers. Since it was introduced in the 1820s, Magnolia soulangeana has been everyone’s favourite, typically with large, white, pink-flushed flowers. It is a small, spreading tree and suitable for a small garden if the lower branches are removed so you can see under it. Just don’t plant it in front of your lounge window.

Magnolia soulageana

There are many varieties of M. soulangeana, with paler or richer colouring and ‘Black Tulip’ (Jugmag1) is a New Zealand variety that has globular, deep purple flowers on a small tree that is a great choice.

Magnolia ‘Black Tulip’

There are lots of pink ‘tulip’ magnolias and ‘Heaven Scent’ is popular because it blooms when small and the flowers are supposed to be fragrant. I can’t say that mine is noticeably scented but it has grown and flowers well in a rather exposed site so I can recommend it.

‘Heaven Scent’

There is a group of really spectacular hybrids from New Zealand and I used to grow ‘Iolanthe’ (top photo) in my previous garden. They are all upright and compact and have very large flowers so are quite spectacular. ‘Atlas’ is similar and ‘Star Wars’ is another that can be really special after a few years.

So you can see that there is a wide variety of magnolias, with plenty for small gardens and with flowers in shades of white, pink and yellow. But there is also a blue-flowered magnolia. I have just planted one but it pays to know just what you are getting before you get too excited. It is the cucumber tree, named for the long green fruits and better known as Magnolia acuminata. This is a large tree with big leaves and the flowers are basically green and produced with the leaves so not very showy. It is the species that was used to breed the yellow magnolias which is why these usually miss the frosts – they bloom later than most. The buds have a steely, metallic blue sheen, especially in ‘Blue Opal. But the flowers are not blue in the way that agapanthus are and they are produced sparsely on large trees. My tree won’t bloom for many years so I don’t have a photo and you should be cautious about trusting most of the photos on the internet.

Now is the perfect time to plant all trees and shrubs, including magnolias. Fork in lots of organic matter when you plant them and choose a site protected from strong winds, either in sun or part shade. You don’t need to add any fertiliser at this time of year – wait till spring when growth starts and sprinkle on some fish, blood and bone or chicken pellets.

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