Magnolia grandiflora-Enduring and Commanding
The flowering magnolia tree has enduring beauty, commanding size, ancient lineage, and no surprise; global spread. And now we have many new varieties to choose from. Since Charles Plumier traveled from France to Martinique three times in the 17th-century people have wanted more magnolias! He brought them to Europe and we know the rest of the story.
New sizes, shapes, and colors appear each year. Use the resources below to find the perfect tree for your garden this year.
With Magnolias, Choice Is Important
This fact is significant because the magnolia is commanding. Tall, some reaching 80′ and 30′-40′ wide, not every backyard is big enough for some magnolias. With large, shiny leaves, surrounding huge white blooms we don’t forget them. We are happy to find smaller, more manageable sizes, new shapes, additional colors, and scents for our outdoor living. See the chart below for ideas for your environment.
Romantic and Ancient
The magnolia is the world’s most romanticized tree. Ancient and widespread the flowering magnolia that we all love, has relatives 95 million years old. We have fossilized remains dating back 20 million years! The magnolia predates the bee and was most likely pollinated by beetles which we think explains its sturdy blossom.
The magnolia is naturally found in Asia as well as the Americas. Its key variety is the Southern Magnolia and if you see it as a beauty limited to the American South think again. This tree grows throughout the world. Today, there is a variety for your garden.
If You Love Flowering Trees
If you would like to see my growing list go here, “Flowering Trees,“ I list beautiful blooming trees you can grow at home. Note that they are divided into trees for temperate climates where temperatures get cold as well as a separate category for tropical trees.
I have gardened in both regions and it is important to understand your cold hardiness zone before you make the long-term commitment to grow a tree!
On February 9, 2021, I had the good fortune to attend a very expert lecture by one of the leading magnolia researchers. There is exciting new information available, particularly on the subject of newly found or developed magnolia varieties. I am including some resources for you to use. I hope it helps you have success with your magnolias.
Where We Got The Flowering Magnolia Tree
We knew about the origins of the flowering magnolia tree in both Asia and The America’s but as developing countries are able to study and conserve their own flora and fauna we are finding that the magnolia is a native of far more places than we realized.
Asian origins now include far more locations, including warm Pacific islands. The numbers of plants originating in South and Central America are much bigger than we ever understood.
Threats Of Extinction For The Flowering Magnolia
Despite the greater than anticipated varieties, geographic distribution, and new cultivars arriving every day, the flowering magnolia faces plenty of trouble. The estimates are that a full 48% of magnolias in the world are threatened by extinction! The problems are several:
- Logging in native areas.
- Loss of habitat.
- The fact that only 1/2 of the magnolia varieties are protected by being in the collections of botanical gardens.
A good website to learn about the Magnolia is that of the Missouri Botanical Garden which raises over 250 varieties. The site itself is a valuable source of botanical knowledge in general.
How We Got The Magnolia
Remember this guy, he pops up often in the history of horticulture. Charles Plumier (1646-1704). Brave, adventurous, and multi-talented, Plumier was a French monk. Joining his religious order at age 16 he quickly distinguished himself in Mathematics, and Physics as well as Botany. For his sins, he was appointed Royal Botanist to Louis XIV. This meant many trips on a small wooden ship to dangerous places!
He named the magnolia for another important Frenchman, Pierre Magnol (1638-1715). Magnol did not get on any ships but spent his whole life working in Montpelier France where he was an innovator in botanical classification.
Plumier had the taste and interest to bring samples home to France and England where they remain popular trees today.
Where To See Some Flowering Magnolia Trees -Before You Plant
Magnolias are wonderful-but some are huge and not all suit every climate. Would you like to see a good display before you plant some or visit just for the pleasure of seeing them?
The National Collection Of Magnolias
The National Collection of Magnolias is located in 17 separate public gardens around North America and in the territories in which the trees can grow. These locations range from Canada to Mexico.
This is important because no one location is able to hold more than a fraction of this large and diverse group of trees. Here is how to find the gardens, there may be one near you. Magnolia Multisite Collection. The collections are managed by the USDA and the American Public Garden Association.
What To Expect From A Garden Visit
This collection includes botanical institutions from a wide geographical range. This is because the genus encompasses a lot of the world. The intention is to represent the diversity of species in North America.
While the Magnolia has warm climate origins there are now many cultivars for much colder climates. So the collections include the Atlanta Botanical Garden (zone 7b and 8a) the University of Florida (zone 9a) and Green Bay Botanical Garden (zone 5a.) the coldest place in the collection,
The Definitive List Of Magnolia Cultivars
Cultivars are plant varieties that are produced by selective breeding. The definitive authority on Magnolia trees is the Magnolia Society International. Its members are the researchers who develop plants, the growers and dealers who provide them, and the gardens that house them.
The organization produces the Cultivar Checklist in PDF format. It is the result of years of expert volunteer labor, I can’t think of a better resource. You can use the link that follows to read the list online. You can also download and save the list.
Find a dealer/grower using the list. Ensure that the tree you choose suits your location, especially as to space, sun, wind, and soil. Discuss what you require and the space you have with the dealer. (This list is updated regularly if you don’t see it check back.)
A General Outline Of Flowering Magnolia Varieties
Southern Magnolia-Magnolia grandiflora
This tree, the Southern Magnolia is the most widely planted street tree in the world. It includes 200 cultivars and counting.
In North America, it is the most recognized magnolia. This large flowering tree will make a very beautiful presentation on your property. Further, it may well become the major feature of your garden. It spreads from as far north as Massassacusetts, to North Carolina to Florida, and west to East Texas. You can plant some varieties of it in zones 6-10. We appreciate the leathery, large green leaves (with reddish undersides) and the massive, white fragrant flower. Expect the flowers to bloom in spring and summer and in the south sometimes into fall. In my zone 10 garden, we see blooms for Christmas.
Widely cultivated in warm parts of the world today, the tree is medium to very large in size and can reach 90′ tall with spreads of 40′ They are reasonably fast growers. Its shape is a dense pyramid with branches often reaching to the ground. In shady conditions, its branching will be more open.
Southern Magnolia Tree-Magnolia grandiflora– Uses
Specimen Tree- With its straight trunk, attractive foliage, height, and fragrant flowers the Magnolia Grandiflora is ornamental and a perfect specimen plant.
Privacy barrier- The smaller varieties will make a thick, dense privacy barrier wherever needed. Plant a medium variety like Bracken’s Brown Beauty 15′ apart for full privacy.
An Espalier-In some areas where we have lived the tree is popular when espaliered. We lived in neighborhoods with walled gardens, swimming pools, and houses close together. The espaliered Magnolia decorates walls and fences. The narrow Little Gem cultivar is the primary choice for espalier.
Pleached-this is the row of trees trimmed on the bottom to look like a “hedge on stilts”. We tend to think of pleaching as a feature from 17th-century French estates. It has, however, a very modern set of applications in our gardens today. It is a way to section off areas in the garden and create garden rooms. It has become popular in urban areas as a way to screen off a view. It adds height without the claustrophobic atmosphere of a tall fence.
How To Train Your Magnolias Up A Flat Surface
- Start with smaller varieties
- Prune just after the bloom is complete. Avoid pruning before the bloom is complete-the plant blooms on the prior year growth
- Remove dead and diseased foliage with sharp shears.
- Cut flush (near to the trunk) and make angular cuts
- Remove leading branches to promote vertical and horizontal growth
- Inspect throughout the growing season for any diseases and pests
Other Important Varieties
Originating in Japan, this cold-hardy tree is planted in zones 3-8. A multi-stemmed, small tree its blossoms contain 12-40 sepals arrayed in a star formation.
Royal Star Magnolia
For a more compact, multi-stemmed, and open-branched variety that is also drought tolerant consider the Royal Star. The Royal Star will bloom one or two weeks later than some other star magnolias which in cold climates can be helpful.
A large tree its wide blossoms present one color inside and another outside, There are hundreds of cultivars. The saucer magnolia is a very early bloomer, which can present the risk of frozen flowers. New attempts to solve this problem include more cold hardiness and slightly later bloom times.
Look for the new variety Jon Jon which flowers two weeks later and has a very fragrant scent. Jon Jon is cold-hardy in zones 6b-9a. Here is a good discussion from the University of Florida.
This variety grows with success in South Florida and Southeast Asia. It is found in zones 9-10. It is characterized by a lovely scent and yellow to pale mauve flowers. You can find a display at Leu Gardens in Orlando Fl. We live near the Florida Everglades and we see them in the ‘Glades themselves!
Can I Use Magnolia Flowers As Cut Flowers?
Here Are Six Steps To Make Them Last
These blossoms are notoriously hard to keep alive indoors. There is a way to keep them for 7-9 days. Here are the 6 steps to take.
- Cut the blossoms early in the morning or in the evening. Use sharp clippers and cut on an angle. Remove the excess leaves and plunge the stems into lukewarm water
- Place in a cool spot with low lighting for about 2 hours before handling further
- Dissolve one tsp. sugar in 1 qt of water, add one cup of lemon-lime soda and 1 tsp bleach to create a floral preservative
- Arrange your stems in the water but do not touch the blossoms or overcrowd the vase
- keep your arrangement in a cool spot away from direct sunlight and any draft
- Refrigerate the flowers overnight, change the water every other day
What Is The Best Environment?
The Southern Magnolia grows best in full sun/part shade, requiring at least 4 hours of direct sun. It can tolerate strong winds but not maritime exposure. Magnolias prefer slightly acidic soil. Two ways of making the soil more acidic are to use peat moss as mulch and to use pine mulch.
If You Would like To Plant One – Varieties of Magnolia grandiflora-With Sizes And Regions
|6a-10b||North Carolina to Texas and Florida, 10″ flower. Height to 30′ x12′ Wide.|
|7-9||Florida, larger, slow-growing, dark underleaf, good shade tree, 60’H x 30’w, mature|
|Brackens Brown Beauty||Magnolia grandiflora BBB||7-9||Zone 5/6-9 20′-30’h x15′-25’w. Along with Edith Bogue the most cold hardy.|
|Claudia Wannamaker||Magnolia grandiflora Claudia Wannamaker||6a-10b||North Carolina, to Texas and Florida, to 50′|
|Edith Bogue||Magnolia grandiflora Edith Bogue||6-9||Cold hardy, include NJ, zone 6-9. 40′-60’h x20′-30′ w, Winter Hardy, 60’h-30’w|
|Greenback||Magnolia grandiflora “Greenback”||7-10||North Carolina to Florida 35’t-220’w|
|Kay Parris||Magnolia grandiflora |
|6-9||Semi-dwarf (19′-30′) range is North Carolina, to Florida and Texas, water in extreme heat. Kay Parris was developed as a cross of Little Gem and Brackens Brown Beauty. It is valued because it is able to develop a single central stem, something which is difficult to do with Little Jem.|
|Little Gem||Magnolia |
|7-9||” (can reach 30′)-zone 7a-10 -compact, narrow for small yards and espalier, extra water in extreme heat. We have many of these in zone 10, Some sources say zone 9 is the warmest range. Ours does well but not all that I see.|
|Miss Chloe||Magnolia grandiflora |
|6b-10a||Developed in Central Florida and widely used there, 60′-80’t-255′-35-w|
|Teddy Bear||Magnolia grandiflora|
|7-9||Semi-dwarf, (20′ high. leaves look like teddy bear ears, zone 7-9. very compact|
‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’-Widely Applicable
Many expert horticulturalists consider this one of the most superior cultivars of the southern magnolia.
This is a garden-developed cultivar. How can you tell? A naturally occurring variety is written in italics, just like the genus and species. If you see the italicized genus and species followed by a name in plain text surrounded by single quotation marks, like a book name, you know that you are looking at a man-made cultivar.
Knowing the binomial nomenclature is not hard and it is a big help to plant identification. As a volunteer Master Gardener in my community, I try to convince everyone that this is a good idea. I don’t win all the time but If you would like to know more here is my summary. “Latin for Gardeners-A Little Help.”
A magnolia grower in South Carolina, named Ray Bracken, raised fields full of magnolia trees and discovered a valuable specimen in the 1960s. That tree, now patented, became the “mother of all” its cultivar, and the rest is now history.
What Makes This Tree So Useful?
It is a handsome tree, with a true, full-length pyramidal shape, it is not too big for many gardens, expect it to mature at about 35′, it accepts a wider range of soil types than many magnolias, is more salt-tolerant than most, and offers some special attractions. The foliage is large, shiny, and leathery. The leaf top is a vibrant dark green and the underside is a rich brown, often called cinnamon. Cut the leaves for winter bouquets, as they have a long vase life in the house. The lemon-scented, white blossom ranges from 5-6″ in diameter.
The Bracken’s Brown Beauty is faster growing than most varieties. If you are a gardener over 12, you will appreciate that fact! It can add 1-2′ every year.
The variety is hardy and grows successful in zones 5 through 10a, which is the hot climate where I now garden. That is a big range for an adaptable tree. Here is a piece on Bracken’s Brown Beauty trees in the New York Botanical Garden.
New Varieties Of Magnolia
This is where the excitement is, New varieties are both found and created. The “right plant for your place” can solve otherwise difficult problems and add new beauty you never had access to before. Here are some I learned about. You may need a little ingenuity to locate the one for you.
New Discoveries and Selections
We find these in three major categories, here they are.
- Yellow blossoms, both deciduous and evergreen.
- Compact magnolias for small spaces.
- Pink and Red Varieties-some big surprises are here.
Yellow Flowering Magnolias
The deciduous varieties are created by crossing a highly valued, historic Chinese plant x a native cucumber tree magnolia. The North American parent is Magnolia acuminate, “cucumber tree magnolia”. It is a large, cold-hardy magnolia native to the Eastern US and Southern Ontario, Canada.
The difficulty as I understand it is a need for grafting which makes the available number of plants small. There are, however, 60 varieties of yellow magnolia. If you want one you can find one.
The Butterfly cultivar is the most available of the deciduous varieties, the flowers are smaller, and it will grow as far south as Northern Florida. Search by the Butterfly name to find one.
Evergreen Yellow Magnolia
Magnolia Michelia-this is a small tree with yellow blossoms. Michelia is a genus of about 50 species of plants originating in southern Asia, including southern China. A member of the Magnoliaceae family it is considered a synonym for magnolia. Some varieties are yellow with edges banded in color.
Dwarf And Compact Magnolia
There are more dwarf and compact flowering magnolia’s available for the spaces you once thought too small for a magnolia.
Magnolia laevifolia, evergreen, small (10-15’high). Look for cultivars, Gail’s Favorite, and Michelle.
Gail’s Favorite is perfect for containers at 6′. Small white flowers, dark evergreen leaves with rich brown undersides. It is not tolerant of cold temperatures.
MIchelle- is similarly shrubby and slightly taller at 15′.
Alta– This is a very narrow tree for tight spaces. In zones 6-10, in full sun, this tree keeps its dense columnar shape without pruning. Very slow growing it will reach 20′.
Dwarf Pink Magnolia
Both dwarf and Pink, the plants on this list may suit your needs.
Ann-this late-blooming cultivar is only 8-10′ in height. It is hardy in zones 4-8.
Jane- This is the hardiest of the group, reaching 10-15′ in height and grows in zones 4-7. It blooms late in spring, after frost, and produces a pink bloom with a white center.
Fairy Magnolia Blush-with pale pink blossoms from late winter through spring it is hardy to zone 8-11.
Black Tulip Magnolia-with deep pink flowers its branches can reach 20′ but is rated for success in containers. It’s best in zones 5-9.
Pink And Magenta Flowering Magnolia
These were described to us as “future, but near future”.
Varieties the breeders are excited about include Purple Queen and Royal Robes. You can find these online now.
Stellar Ruby-you can find this one in the Southern Living Plant collection.
Look for these also.
Magnolia Insignis– I found this advertisement with a photo.
Anita Figlar–I found this with a photo.
Katie-O Early-This looks pretty new.
Tropical Red Flowered Species
These include crosses of red and yellow magnolias and have produced an orange cultivar you will see, I am not sure when,
Where To Buy Your Magnolia Trees
Trees of this size are a major purchase for the garden. Fortunately, the real experts have an international list for you. It consists of expert dealers and growers who have a wide range of offerings and/or can provide unusual trees. This is produced by the Magnolia Society International and is sorted by geographical region.
Here Is The List. Magnolia Society International
When and How To Plant
Evergreen varieties should be planted in early spring. The deciduous varieties should be planted when the trees are dormant. In cold climates plant in early spring, in warm climates plant them in fall or winter.
How To Plant
Select your location. Know the mature dimensions of the tree you are planting. Allow plenty of room, the tree takes space and does not like to be moved. Do not plant anything below the tree. Its leaves will fall and kill anything planted there. The leaves, however, will add nutrients to the roots.
See note below on soil.
Prepare The Root Ball
Expose the topmost roots by carefully removing the upper layer of soil from the plant. See the root within the top 2″ of soil.
If the tree is balled, remove the covering. If potted, carefully remove the container and make four evenly spaced vertical slices down the side of the root ball. This will help prevent circling roots that will limit root growth.
Dig the hole 1.5 times the width of the root and about as deep as the root. Expose the very top root and when planted the tree should be equal with the soil. Experts say that one of the most common ways to kill a magnolia is planting too deep. I take this advice seriously because most of us gardeners have planted a lot of tomatoes, not many people plant a lot of 90′ trees! Water the tree and cover it with mulch. Feed the new tree in spring with a time-release fertilizer. Provide water until the tree is established.
Avoid Magnolia Root Girdling
I live in hurricane country, and if you have ever seen a tree uprooted due to root girdling (root just growing in a circle around the stem) you know how sad it is. The magnolia is prone to this problem as it has long, rope-like unbranched roots. As you prepare to plant look actively for this problem and cut off any circled root!
Caring For The
Keep young trees well-watered until the trees are well established. The Leaves will drop in spring and fall. The Magnolia does not handle pruning well. Keep pruning to a minimum and keep lawnmowers and trimming equipment away from the trunk. If you need to keep the tree smaller pick the shape you want and trim toward that goal. Remove branches that are fast growers and leave smaller ones.
In northern areas protect from freezing, this is a broad-leaved evergreen, mulch heavily in winter.
Soil is important to your success with magnolia trees. The tree requires well-drained soil and will not thrive in wet or boggy areas. Magnolias prefer acid soil and if your soil, like ours, is alkaline or even neutral amend the soil with peat moss before planting the tree. You will need to periodically adjust the pH by adding acidic mulch such as pine needles or using an acidifier.
Pests and Diseases-
It is considered reasonably pest and disease-free.
These are the issues to look for
- Leaf Spot-rarely needs chemical controls. Rake up and dispose of infected leaves
- Canker-will kill branches, prune it out
- Verticillium Wilt-may kill branches and the tree. Prune away any dead or injured areas and fertilize with a high nitrogen fertilizer in spring
- Scales- infest twigs-control with horticultural oil applied in spring. The most common is Magnolia scale
- Scales tend to come with the plant, check new plants for scale. If needed chemical controls may be added
In ancient China, the magnolia referenced womanly beauty and dignity. It has come to symbolize dignity and nobility in general. So if your garden needs a little of both, this might be the flowering tree for you.
I will continue to add to the flowering tree lists.