Magnolias – Number One in the Plant World

By Abbie Jury

If I am ever asked what my favourite plant group is, it does tend to be whatever is freshly in flower at the time. There is no single minded loyalty to one genus of plants here. But overall, magnolias are probably number one here. There simply is nothing in my experience that can beat the sight of a large magnolia tree in full bloom. Set against a blue sky, it can take your breath away.

The recent run of fine early spring weather with little wind has given us a splendid flowering this year. I have never counted how many we have planted out here but it must be well into the hundreds now. Some are splendid large specimens imported from England by Mark’s father fifty to sixty years ago, some are named plants of more recent breeding and many are simply part of the ongoing breeding programme here.

For some reason we have not yet managed to fathom, we get much richer colour in New Zealand than is apparent in some other countries. When we looked at peak flowering in England, Italy and Switzerland a couple of years ago, we were a bit surprised to see how washed out the colours can be in their conditions. Named cultivars which we know here as rich pinks, purples and wine reds appeared to be much paler. It may be due to soil conditions there and our high light levels may also have something to do with it. While we have not yet seen the magnolia flowering in areas of the USA or in their native habitats of China and central Asia, we returned from Europe convinced that a New Zealand flowering is something special.

I am talking of deciduous magnolias here. The evergreen magnolias, mostly native to USA, are a different plant altogether and decidedly less spectacular in their flower power. I had a call this week from a woman (out of the readership area) who was trying to source a pink or red magnolia. She had a white one but she wanted another colour because she was planting her children’s placentas. (Did I need to know that? Not really.) I then ascertained that she wanted a pink or red evergreen magnolia. I restrained myself from commenting that the rest of the world wants one too. Despite the best efforts of some international breeders to get colour into the evergreens, they remain resolutely white in their flowers.

Evergreen magnolias have their place (as windbreaks and in cemeteries in my book, I am afraid) but they are unlikely to ever make you say “oh wow”.

Magnolias are one plant group which has benefited hugely from the interference or endeavours (depending on your point of view) of the modern plant breeders. Even fifty years ago, there was not a big range to chose from – campbellii, soulangeana, Rustica Rubra, liliiflora, kobus (the stellata or star magnolia) and not a huge amount more. Some you had to wait a good fifteen years or so to open a flower and some had a huge burst of wonderful blooms only to be over in about 10 days. And they were mostly pink or white unless you were American in which case you had the small flowered yellow species.

How times have changed. Now some magnolias will flower in the garden centre (bred to encourage flowering on juvenile plants) though it must be said that early blooms on very young plants aren’t always up to quality. Most modern hybrids will at least flower within a couple of years of planting out.

Many modern magnolias will extend the flowering season because they set flower buds down the stem, not just on the tips. This means that the flower buds develop at different rates and consequently the display lasts longer. A number of years ago, a very late and severe frost here turned Magnolia Iolanthe from a vision in pink and white to brown slush overnight. It was very discouraging but within a week she had opened a full set of fresh flowers and was back to her former glory. Iolanthe was one of the first modern large flowered cultivars to show this propensity to set buds down the stem and from first to last flowers can be as long as two months.

In New Zealand we tend to favour solid petals and more robust flower form which has to do with our wind. In countries where wind is not an issue, big floppy flowers are quite acceptable but they just blow to bits here. I am not so keen on the stellata or star magnolia types because the petals lack substance and can fall apart rather too quickly. They also tend to make multi trunked rather twiggy large shrubs to small trees which are not as appealing as a well shaped solid tree, in my eyes at least.

Modern breeding has also brought a wider range of smaller growing plants onto the market which means that you don’t need to own a very large section to be able to grow at least one tree. That said, the bigger the tree and the bigger the flower, the more spectacular they are. Some trees just get old and tired as they get bigger whereas magnolias go from strength to strength.

Mark will tell you that a watched bud does not open. He is popping up and down the hill several times a day in anticipation of a rather special cross which is about to burst into flower. It looks exciting with the promise of a colour break and the bud is satisfyingly large but the wretched thing still has not rewarded him by showing its true colour and form.

Those of you who grow magnolias will have seen the large furry sheath which encases the bud. When they were little, our children used to refer them as sleeping bags for mice.

Yes, magnolias are number one in the plant world for us here.