The Divas of the spring-flowering cat-walk

No matter which part of the UK you live in, there is one group of spring-flowering plants which stand head and shoulders above the rest – Magnolias. For sheer flamboyance and flowering intensity nothing else comes close, they really are the Divas of the horticultural cat-walk.

Shy they are most certainly not, but these plants are more than just ‘eye-candy’. They are one of the most primitive forms of flowering plants (angiosperms) alive on earth today. They evolved in the Mesozoic Era some 140 million years ago and since then have survived numerous ice ages and developed colourful scented flowers to attract insect pollinators such as beetles.

It is of course not just beetles that find the flowers attractive, most gardeners do too and who can blame them? After-all, what other genus of plant is going to give you hundreds of scented flowers the size of tea plates every spring; flowers that come in every colour from virgin white to blackcurrant purple, oh yes and yellow too. Magnolias thrive in both urban and rural locations; are very tolerant of heavy clay soils and atmospheric pollution, can live for 100 years or more and include amongst their ranks of some 125 species and numerous cultivars several that are ‘lime-tolerant’. Magnolias really do have it all and chosen wisely they can bring colour and fragrance to your garden from late February right through to early autumn, although it is between March and May when they really take centre stage in the garden.

Magnolia stellata
Magnolia stellata
Magnolia wilsonii
Magnolia wilsonii

Perhaps the most stunning of all is the giant Himalayan ‘Pink Tulip Tree’, Magnolia campbellii which flowers in March and early April. To see a large specimen covered in hundreds of rose-pink water-lily-like flowers, initially goblet-shaped before opening to 30cm across, is an unforgettable sight. Mature specimens can reach 24 metres tall (78 feet), so you need space in your garden to show this plant off to its full glory.

One of the loveliest of the smaller magnolias is Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’, which was first cultivated at Nymans Garden in Sussex in the early 1950’s and since then has become very popular for planting in domestic-sized gardens. It has beautiful deep-pink buds, which open to reveal 12 pale lilac-pink strap-like petals which give each flower a delicate star-like appearance.

Perhaps the best magnolia for planting in towns and cities is the tried and tested Magnolia x soulangeana, a hybrid between two Chinese species M. denudata and M. liliiflora, which was initially raised near Paris in the 1820s by Etienne Soulange-Bodin, a French army officer. Today, it is the world’s most widely planted magnolia and many superb cultivars have been developed from it, such as ‘Alba Superba’, ‘Brozzonii’, ‘Lennei’ and ‘Nigra’.

One of my personal favourites is Wilson’s magnolia Magnolia wilsonii, named in honour of the English plant collector E. H. Wilson, who discovered the species in western China in 1908. It is slightly later flowering than many magnolias, waiting until it is fully in leaf in May to flower – when there is less chance of frost damaging its beautiful cup-shaped, white fragrant blooms which surround a large cluster of crimson-purple stamens. This is a ‘lime-tolerant’ magnolia and grows perfectly happily on my limestone soil in the Cotswolds.

Even later flowering is Magnolia tripetala otherwise known as the Umbrella tree. This is a very hardy, distinctive, open-headed species, with giant tobacco-like deciduous leaves up to 50cm (20inches) long. From May through until early July it produces a succession of cream-coloured strongly-scented flowers up to 25cm (10in) across, which are followed by attractive, red, cone-shaped seed clusters.

Perhaps the stateliest of all magnolias is the evergreen Bull Bay Magnolia grandiflora which originates from the south-east states of the USA. Quite often grown against a warm south-facing wall, it produces a dense covering of glossy deep green leaves, which provide the perfect foil for the citronella-scented, creamy-white flowers which are produced throughout summer and early autumn.

Magnolia grandiflora
Magnolia grandiflora

Cultural requirements for magnolias

In general, cultural requirements for magnolias are not difficult to provide in most gardens. They need a reasonable depth of relatively rich soil and like good drainage and plenty of moisture. The early-flowering species and cultivars need a sheltered site with some protection from frost and cold easterly winds. Magnolias can be grown in full sun or partial shade. Once planted, magnolias prefer not to be moved, so chose the planting site well. Pruning is not essential but if undertaken it should be carried out in midsummer to avoid the risk of bleeding and to allow sufficient time for the healing process to begin before winter sets in. 

Gardens to visit to see Magnolia displays this spring

Gardens to Visit 2019