A magnolia tree stands up with a structure of strong “bones” in a garden around which gardeners may build a larger landscape. Or alone, a magnolia can create a singular form of floral drama, even surrounded by crisscrossing city streets.
Wherever the magnolia tree is planted, its spring flowers add color and fragrance to your early landscape while the ground below is still hard-packed with broken twigs and worn out leaves.
You may hardly be able to reach gray branches on mature examples, but fuzzy buds will line them; the petals emerging as blooms ignite your sense of touch with a tactile waxy surface of pink, white, yellow, or blended colors.
Right Magnolia Tree Variety in the Right Garden Location
Choosing the right magnolia tree for your garden should depend on in which region you intend to plant it. Northern gardens are less suitable locations for the southern or sweetbay type of magnolia, for instance. The farther north a gardener lives, the more probable frost will reappear in the region in late winter or early spring, and possible as late as early May.
Northern gardeners should search for hybrid varieties related to the star and saucer magnolias, as their species are hardier, up to hardiness zone four. The earlier the buds open on magnolia trees the more susceptible they are to being nipped by early frosts in spring.
Magnolia acuminate, the cucumbertree magnolia is a tough tree with a potential to thrive up to zone 3 in a protected site. The flowers are less showy but still special: it is the only species magnolia with yellow flowers and emerges in late spring after the leaves.
Gardeners refer to the umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) as a native. It has a better chance of thriving in the southern portions of the upper Midwest and blooms in May. This type retains a classic magnolia appearance with large creamy flowers and big leaves, but the foliage has a whorl habit.
The magnolia tree has its roots in Japan and China; though southern and sweet bay varieties are also called native magnolias in southern sections of the United States. A medicinal Chinese magnolia (Magnolia officinalis) is similar to the umbrella form and, unfortunately, is no longer found in the wild in China.
Whichever magnolia you choose, the tree is a slower grower, as opposed to the silver maple (Acer saccharinum) or green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), which grow-up quickly. Gardeners call these fast growing trees weak-wooded in the landscape.
In contrast, the magnolia is a tall specimen in its mature form and the accompanying broad-leaved foliage will cast ample swaths of shade during the summer; making a full-grown magnolia worth the wait.
Differences Between Star and Saucer Magnolias
Dark green leaves that run alternately along the tree’s branches distinguish all magnolia trees; together the foliage can help to give a garden a tropical sensation. Each leaf is sturdy, glossy, and oval and broad in the middle. In varying degrees, determined by age and variety, the bark of a magnolia tree is gray, sometimes marked with tiny horizontal lines.
The star magnolia (Magnolia stellate) is a Japanese magnolia, its species wild only in the mountains of the island country. It blooms in very early spring before the plant leafs out. The flowers look like frilly stars and produce a sweet scent. Though it blooms in March, and early April, it is a better tree for northern gardens for its tolerance for the regions’ early spring winter-like weather. The star magnolia is cold hardy from zones 4 – 8 and is a parent to many hybrid varieties.
The story goes that the saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) was the first hybrid and gardeners bred it France during the 19th century; it is the product of a lily magnolia (Magnolia liliiflora) and a yulan magnolia (Magnolia denudata). The roots of the native species trace back to China, however.
Experts think that the yulan magnolia was the first magnolia cultivated around 4,000 years ago. Although the blooms are very frost sensitive, horticulturists use the species in hybrid breeding for its tendency toward big blooms.
Like the star magnolia, the saucer magnolias and both their related hybrids, they are hardy to regions as far north as zone 4. Dennis Ledvina discovered Magnolia ‘Rosemarie’ near Green Bay, Wisconsin. It is a newer, complex hybrid that has its roots begun in a colder region of the Midwest. The tree produces huge true-pink flowers that open when the tree leafs out later in spring.
‘Little Girl Magnolia’ series is a hybrid between star and lily magnolias, hardy to zone 3. The repeat bloomer are small shrubby trees named ‘Jane’, ‘Judy’, ‘Ann’, ‘Susan’, ‘Betty’, ‘Randy’,’Ricki’, and ‘Pinkie.’
Evergreen Trees Found in Southern Magnolias
Magnolia grandiflora is a southern magnolia that performs as an evergreen tree in sections of the South. When it is grown in a sheltered location, its zone 7 – 9 hardy-self grows on the edges of Kansas City. The southern magnolia has fragrant white flowers and blooms from late May through July, and in the southeastern United States it would be appropriate for a native garden.
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is deciduous, though only partially evergreen and widely planted in the Kansas City area. The sweetbay magnolia is a small tree that grows smaller flowers. A silver cast underneath characterizes its longer leaves.
Lily magnolia (Magnolia liliiflora) is a shrub magnolia called Mulan or “woody orchid.” A native of China, its tulip-shaped flowers bloom in the middle of spring, late April – early May, in pink or purplish colors.
Searching Public Gardens for Magnolia Collections
Magnolia-tree collections are found in many public parks and gardens in the United States. Spanning from early to late spring, it is the time of year for visiting a public space that has magnolia trees blooming en mass. Gardeners may find examples of the fragrant spring tree at local botanical gardens.
Visitors take in the beauty of magnolias when arriving in Washington, D.C. in April and early May – perhaps a little too early for the cherry blossoms. Flowering magnolias are all around the White House and the District of Columbia and most feature plant tags with labels.
Missouri’s Powell Gardens, nearby Kansas City, has a collection of 300 varieties of magnolias. The magnolias in the area begin blooming in mid-March and go through June.
The magnolia collection at Boerner Botanical Gardens, in southern Wisconsin, is in the arboretum section, which is connected to Whitnall Park. The magnolias bloom from mid to late April, most years.
Searching for Magnolias
Your search for one magnolia at one of these locations may inspire you to find the perfect tree for your own backyard. The magnolia is a substantial tree and is worth the effort. The bouquet of fragrance and big flowers it produces will awaken each garden season, no matter where you live.