The mention of a magnolia brings forth visions of fragrant blooms borne on large evergreen trees with huge waxy leaves. Or maybe you hear Billy “Crash” Craddock crooning about “Sweet Magnolia Blossoms” leading you back to days past. The large evergreen form mentioned is the Magnolia grandiflora or “Southern Magnolia” which is an evergreen tree growing to heights of 60 feet high and 30 feet wide – larger when further South of Virginia. The broad, waxy leaves can be wider than your hand and twice as long. The hugh and fragrant white blossoms are produced heavily in early summer and occasionally throughout the summer. A large fruit pod is produced in the fall.
There are cultivars of Magnolia grandiflora with different habits such as smaller size, better cold tolerance, and varied leaves. For example, “Edith Bogue” has a darker, smaller leaf with a tan underside, providing a nice contrast. The mature size of the plant is about half that of the common Southern magnolia, a trait which helps in the small landscape.
There are many other deciduous magnolias. These include Magnolia x soulangiana, M. stellata, M. kobus, and M. acuminata, to name a few. Unlike the Southern magnolia, these all lose their leaves in the winter.
Magnolia x soulangiana is known as the “Saucer Magnolia” or the “Tulip Tree”, not to be confused with the Tulip Poplar which is also known as the “Tulip Tree.” The “Saucer” magnolia blooms in March under normal circumstances, though an early spring can lead to early blossoms which may fall prey to a sudden cold snap. The flowers are a spectacular 8 to 10 inches in diameter. The color ranges from white (Common Saucer) to pink (M. soulangiana “Ann”) to purple (M. soulangiana “Jane”). The tree itself grows to a maturity of about 20 feet in diameter. The buds are quite interesting and attractive.
Magnolia stellata or “Star Magnolia” also blooms in March, though they can bloom here in late January in periods of unseasonably warm weather. The four inch blossom is fragrant, white, and multi-petaled. This is one of the first ornamental trees to bloom. The tree grows to 20 feet tall, though a customer of ours will gladly show you her “Star Magnolia” that is higher than her two story house. A happy tree indeed.
Magnolia kobus has deciduous leaves 4 or 5 inches long. The tree is pyramidal in growth habit reaching a height of 30 feet. The four inch white blooms have fragrance and are produced in late March. The pyramidal shape tends to distinguish this plant from its other deciduous cousins.
The”Cucumber Magnolia” (Magnolia acuminata) has a soft, deciduous leaf which may sometimes be “wavy”. The yellowish blossom is evident in early summer, followed by a small fruit in the fall which resembles a cucumber, thus the name. The plant can grow as tall and wide as the evergreen Southern magnolia.
My column is not so much intended to educate you about Magnolias as it is to make you aware of the different varieties. I have failed to address many other species and cultivars. Like viburnums and hydrangeas, the “Magnolia Group” is deserving of attention because it has so much to offer.