Growing Magnolias Tree
Magnolias Tree, Their very name conjures up images of southern belles in hoop skirts, languidly sipping mint juleps in the shade. And yet these trees and shrubs are not as exotic as they seem. Many varieties can be grown in the USA and Canada, some even in Zone 4.
The most popular types, such as saucer and star magnolia Plants cultivars, are justly prized for their showy, fragrant flowers that open in early spring (at about the same time as forsythia and early narcissus) before their leaves emerge. Though a late frost can nip their flowers in the bud, in a good year their blooms will last for two to three weeks before dropping. To extend the period of bloom even further, plant May-blooming magnolia tree varieties, such as lily magnolia (Magnolia liliiflora) or the spectacular yellow-flowered ‘Elizabeth’ or ‘Yellow Bird’.
While magnolias are best-loved for their dazzling, exotic, winter-blues-chasing spring flowers, they have something to offer throughout the seasons. Their large, shiny green, leathery leaves look fresh all summer and turn an attractive chestnut brown in autumn. In winter, the handsome, smooth, grey bark-similar to that of a beech tree-comes into its own, while the big, velvety flower buds are not only comely but are good indicators of the following spring’s potential blooms as well.
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Large magnolias, such as the Kobus variety (M. Kobus, Zone 5), make good specimen or accent plants are grown in a lawn, but they’re equally effective at the back of a border, especially when backed by an evergreen hedge that shows off their flowers to perfection. Smaller varieties, such as the star magnolias trees (M. stellata cvs.), can be integrated into a mixed or shrub border. They work well with summer-flowering shrubs, including beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) and various spireas, and offer a pleasing contrast in texture and form to imposing perennials such as ornamental grasses.
Plant magnolias in full sun or dappled shade in rich, slightly acidic, moisture-retentive loam. Like most plants, they’ll tolerate less-than-ideal conditions if they’re sated otherwise; many magnolias grow successfully in alkaline soil with a pH of 7.5 at the Dominion Arboretum in Ottawa (Zone 5), most likely because of its deep and moisture-retentive soil. The magnolias wouldn’t thrive as well if planted in a shallow, alkaline soil that rapidly dries out. However, select the site with care, as established magnolias do not transplant easily.
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Planting Magnolia Tree Tips, Known Issues
All have shallow root systems, so the surrounding soil shouldn’t be cultivated too much; underplant with perennials or groundcovers rather than annuals. Magnolias tree should be bought as balled-and-burlapped or container-grown plants: they have a fleshy root system that breaks easily if you try to plant them bare-root and, unless they’re in active growth, the damaged roots will rot rather than heal. It’s also preferable to buy small plants since they suffer less root damage.
In most of USA, spring planting is best, although fall is feasible in regions that have milder winters, such as coastal British Columbia or southern Ontario. Prepare a hole at least twice the size of the root ball so roots can stretch out; site the plant no deeper than it was in its original container. Refill the hole with the original soil, water well, and apply a five-centimeter layer of mulch to help retain moisture. Be prepared to water during any prolonged periods of drought during the first year. This is critical to a magnolia’s survival (water if leaves fell limp to the touch).
Once established, magnolias may need occasional pruning to keep them in bounds. This should be done in early summer after flowering. Remove damaged and crossed branches, shoots growing toward the center of the plant, and, once the magnolia tree grows larger, any lower branches that have become an obstruction.
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In the wild, magnolias grow in woodlands where they benefit from decomposing leaves. To compensate for this in the garden, feed them with granular, slow-release fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10 formulation, in early spring. Apply around the plant’s drip line, using 250 to 500 grams of fertilizer per 2.5 centimeters of trunk diameter, measured at chest height. For a multi-stemmed tree, add up the diameters of the various stems to determine the amount of fertilizer you need. However, don’t fertilize at all for the first couple of years; you want the plant to develop a spreading root system.
While magnolias tree grown in the Deep South are subject to several fungal problems, the ones grown in USA are relatively disease-free. Common pests such as slugs and aphids may cause some damage, but it’s seldom serious, except on young plants.
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New Breeds; a Little About Yellow Magnolias
MEET THE GIRLS
In the mid-1950s, the staff at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., carried out a magnolia flowers-breeding program to extend the blooming season, developing slightly later varieties whose flowers would be resistant to late frost damage. Eight named varieties, affectionately known as “the Girls,” were released in 1965.
They need more acidic soil than the star and saucer magnolias blooms. Both flower size and the number of petals vary from year to year and may depend on prevalent conditions the previous summer while buds were formed. Hardy to Zone 5b, the Girls form upright shrubs that grow to 4.5 meters tall. Many also have blooms that open sporadically during the summer. In order of flowering sequence, below are the Girls (see table on the bottom of the page).
Magnolias with ivory or yellow flowers are growing in popularity and becoming more widely available in Near Garden Centers.
These yellow magnolias tree flowers are likely the result of crossing the native cucumber tree-which has small, insignificant, yellow flowers-with either the Yulan or the saucer magnolia. Hardiness depends on their parentage, but they’re worth trying if you’re looking for something different.
One superior variety is ‘Elizabeth’, introduced by Brooklyn Botanic Garden. A small, conical tree that grows to six meters tall, it has deliciously fragrant, pale yellow flowers. Although generally listed in catalogs as hardy to Zone 6b, these plants flourish in gardens in Ottawa’s Zone 5 climate and flowered well in the spring of 2003, after a winter that was hard on many magnolia plants buds.
Other notable ivory and yellow magnolias include ‘Gold Star’, ‘Butterflies’, ‘Golden Endeavor’, and ‘Yellow Bird’, which have all survived and bloomed in Ottawa gardens. And, if you feel like experimenting, ‘Sundance’, ‘Yellow Fever’, and ‘Yellow Lantern’ are worth looking for as well.
Most Popular Magnolias
The star magnolia tree (M. stellata, Zone 5) is likely the most widely grown. This slow-growing shrub may eventually reach five meters tall and about three meters wide, with dense branches and 10-centimetre-wide, white flowers. ‘Waterlily’ has pink buds with 14 petals each that open white, while ‘King Rose’ and ‘Pink Star’ both produce blooms with 22 pink-tinged petals. The most popular variety is ‘Royal Star’, with pink buds and fragrant, white flowers that have up to 30 petals. It’s also the hardiest and is worth trying in sheltered Zone 4 gardens.
The flowers of the saucer magnolia flowers (M. x soulangeana, Zone 5) average nine petals and are much wider and larger up to 25 centimeters across than those of the star magnolia; inner petals overlap and form an almost closed chalice, while outer petals spread slightly to make a saucer. They’re generally pale purple outside and white inside, but this varies. Like its blooms, the shrub is large-it can reach a height of 10 meters in good conditions.
Growth is upright when the shrub is young but spreads as it matures. The saucer magnolia is a hybrid of M. liliiflora and M. denudata and originated in the garden of Étienne Soulange-Bodin in 1820 in Fremont, France. He had been a cavalry officer in Napoleon’s army and, following the defeat at Waterloo and sickened by the war, he turned to his garden for solace. As he wrote in an 1819 edition of the Gardener’s Magazine: “It had doubtless been better for both parties to have stayed at home and planted their cabbages.” Other hybridizers have repeated this cross since then and there are now many varieties with flowers of varying color and size.
Another group of popular magnolias is M. x loebneri, introduced in the early 1900s in Germany. Two later selections from this cross are especially well known: ‘Leonard Messel’, the blooms of which have 12 petals flushed with pink on the outside and whitish pink with a central purplish line on the inside, and ‘Merrill’, which is exceptionally free-flowering, with 15-petalled, white blooms. Both are hardy to Zone 5. ‘Ballerina’ has pale pink blooms with up to 30 petals. It’s slightly harder than the other two but may not be as readily available.
Three other species magnolias are solid choices for Canadian gardens: the Yulan (M. denudata, Zone 5b) is a large, rounded shrub or small tree that grows nine meters tall and has fragrant, white, cup-shaped flowers 15 centimeters across. It tends to bloom very early; if planted in an exposed location, its nine-petalled flowers may be damaged by a late frost. Kobus (Zone 5) becomes a large shrub up to 12 meters tall with fragrant, white flowers. This species doesn’t bloom while the young-a plant in my garden started from seed about 20 years ago has only just started to flower.
Bull bay, also known as southern magnolia (M. Grandiflora, Zone 7), is evergreen and flowers in late spring with occasional blooms throughout summer and fall. This large tree reaches 24 meters tall and spreads 15 meters across. Its dark green foliage often has rust-colored fuzz on the underside. ‘Little Gem’ is better suited to average-sized gardens-it grows only six meters tall and three meters across.