Magnificent magnolias

Certain plants seem to capture the spirit of the moment and magnolias take centre stage just when the garden is full of promise. These plants have been on the planet since the age of the dinosaur when the earth existed as one large land mass. When continental drift occurred some found themselves in eastern America: others were firmly rooted in eastern Asia.
This ancient provenance means that magnolias have extravagant flowers unlike any other, but you need to choose one that matches your space and your conditions. Some form huge trees and take twenty years to flower. Others suit a small garden, some are shrubby in habit and can be grown in the garden, or a container. Flower shape varies, and those with huge goblets can be prone to frost damage for they trap cold air within each chalice. Starry-flowered forms, with gaps between the petals shrug off early frosts because the cold air flows through the gaps. Whichever you decide to choose try to find the most frost-free position for your magnolia so that the flowers stay pristine.

The easiest of all is Magnolia stellata, the star magnolia. That’s because it's tolerant of a wide range of soil types (it will grow in alkaline as well as its preferred acid soil), and it’s slow growing. In most gardens it will resemble a medium-sized deciduous shrub, although it needs moisture-retentive soil and a sunny position to flower well. The starry white flowers of this Japanese species have a delicate, oriental air but this has been grown in British gardens since the late 1870’s. Normally the flowers appear in April, smothering the twiggy branches.

Magnolia × loebneri 'Leonard Messel'
, raised at Nymans Garden in Sussex in the 1950s, is a fuller-petalled magnolia with twelve rounded spatula-shaped petals. The flower colour of many magnolias has a tendency to vary according to weather conditions. In a good spring, when temperatures are higher, the flowers develop rich-pink petals, while cooler winter conditions produce paler flowers. ‘Leonard Messel’ has a languid air, with petals that swoon downwards. It's best in good light and often takes a while to become established.

There is a range of hybrid magnolias from New Zealand that remain relatively small and flower early on in their lives. Magnolia ‘Burgundy Star’ (JURmag4) (PBR) has lightly fragrant, hand-sized claret blooms that hover between star and chalice. ‘Black Tulip’ (probably a hybrid between two early Jury hybrids called ‘Vulcan’ and ‘Iolanthe’) has lightly-fragrant claret-coloured blooms that are more waterlily in shape. Given good light, something New Zealand has plenty of, this can be covered in bloom between late April and May.

The Magnolia Fairy series are compact evergreen magnolias reaching on average 3m at most. These are very suitable for smaller gardens. Magnolia ‘Fairy Blush’ (MicJur01) (PBR) has saucer-shaped apple blossom pink flowers that appear in spring and the petals are thickly textured. Magnolia ‘Fairy Cream’ (MicJur02) (PBR) has cup-shaped buds that open to ivory flowers. In severe winters Fairy hybrids may shed foliage, but they will recover when spring arrives.

Try to find a warm position, for these first-rate new Magnolias.

Plant breeders have been hybridising magnolias for decades and one series, known as the ‘eight little girls’, was raised by breeders in Washington DC in the 1960s. ‘Susan’, a cross between the pink star magnolia M. stellata ‘Rosea’ and M. liliiflora, has the darkest flowers of them all. It forms a wide tree reaching 4m, with goblet-shaped, sweetly fragrant flowers that are upright and slender. These arrive in April before the foliage, making ‘Susan’ the most widely grown of the ‘eight little girls’.

The upright stance and deep, purple-pink flowers of ‘Susan’ are inherited from M. liliiflora ‘Nigra’ which does well in British gardens. Given a sheltered position, this will flower profusely and reach 3m. The darker petals have a habit of swooning to reveal a tempting glimpse of the pale inners, so it’s very gentle on the eye and widely grown and admired.

M.liliiflora is also a parent of M. x soulangeana, the most commonly grown magnolia in Britain. This treelike magnolia, hybridised in France, needs space because it will turn into a large tree in time. In April, warm white flowers appear with a hint of pink and the branches sprawl over the ground providing flower from the ground upwards. It’s long-lived and many were planted over a hundred years ago. It also tolerates a range of conditions, flowering abundantly in the second half of April year after year.

Magnolia × soulangeana 'Alba Superba' flowers early, so needs a position well away from frosts if possible. It isn’t a harsh white despite the name 'Alba'. The flowers have a pink-purple base to their cup and saucer arrangement, so it's soft and feminine. It will reach 7m and, like many magnolias, it will escape frost damage if planted on a slope, or at the top of a slope - so that any cold air can roll away.

Magnolia 'Heaven Scent'’ also has M. liliiflora ‘Nigra’ parentage and the upright flowers are a strong-pink, bred in California during the mid-1950s, it’s one of the most reliable magnolias of all, flowering year after year every April.

All the above magnolias are deciduous but there are some that are evergreen. The American M. grandiflora is known for its wonderful fragrance of citrus and lemon. M. grandiflora. The huge flowers appear in summer, one or two at a time, from enormous buds. The large, leathery green foliage usually has a brown felted underside for added interest. Most have to grow this as a wall shrub, rather than in the open, as it demands lots of space. Many a grand house has one of these giants on a warm south-facing wall, but now there is a smaller more compact form which can be grown in a smaller garden. Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem' still has the long dark green leaves with furry, rusty orange undersides and gorgeous large creamy white flowers, but growing to about 5m x 5m means more of us can have this impressive plant in our gardens.