Magnolia – Michelia: the evergreens

Just another Magnolia laevifolia (syn Michelia yunnanensis) selection but in this case it is our selection which we called Honey Velvet

Just another Magnolia laevifolia (syn Michelia yunnanensis) selection but in this case it is our selection which we called Honey Velvet

I was surprised this week to have someone ask me what michelias are. I realised I have never written about them in a general sense. That is because I try and separate my published garden writing from our commercial interests and michelias are inextricably bound up with the latter.

Michelias are in fact a type of magnolia. They used to be seen as close relatives to magnolias, now they have been reclassified botanically as magnolias and this has involved a complete name change for some species.

Mention evergreen magnolias and most people think of the grandifloras from the southern states of USA. All readers will know these by sight, if not by name. They have big, tough, leathery leaves and they flower in summer with large creamy white blooms.

Personally, I am not a big fan of the grandifloras. They make big, chunky trees which are remarkably tolerant of harsh weather conditions. As such they have their place but I think that place is on golf courses and cemeteries. There is a row of them as you exit Huntly to the south and I am pretty sure they are on the edge of a cemetery.

Why am I not keen on them? They don’t mass flower, for one thing. In fact the flowering is generally random and intermittent. I find them a bit chunky in the landscape and if one is going to go chunky, I would rather have our native puka. The leaves are really tough and take forever to decompose.

That said, the varieties with deep velvety brown indumentums (the furry coating on the underneath of the leaf) can look attractive in the wind. Magnolia grandiflora “Little Gem” is a tough plant with exceptionally dark forest green leaves contrasting with cinnamon indumentum and is much favoured in modern gardens. Just be aware that it is only a little gem as opposed to an extremely giant gem. It will still get quite large over time and you will never get many flowers on it.

Fairy Magnolia Blush - bringing pink into the range

Fairy Magnolia Blush – bringing pink into the range

Michelias are very different. Their foliage is smaller and much lighter in substance so they are not an oppressive plant. And they can flower and flower because they set flower buds down the stem at nearly every leaf axel, not just on the tips. Most of them peak in spring but some keep on flowering for months on end and some will have a second blooming in summer.

There are a few michelias that are widely available here. M. figo has long been referred to as the port wine magnolia and many gardeners will know it. It has small leaves and is inclined to go a bit yellow in full sun. When it starts pushing out its scent in late afternoon, it smells remarkably like Juicy Fruit chewing gum.

There are various forms of doltsopa, the most common in this country being “Silver Cloud”. It has wonderfully large, pure cream blooms which are very fragrant. But, there are always buts, the flowers are floppy and often get frosted in colder areas, the tree tends to drop most of its leaves after flowering and it gets rather larger than most people expect. M. maudiae is a better bet as a garden tree but difficult to propagate so not generally available.

What we used to know as Michelia yunnanensis is certainly a popular addition to the garden plants of this country. It had a brief flirtation with being called Magnolia dianica before its current name was settled upon. It is now correctly known as Magnolia laevifolia but you are still more likely to find it sold as M. yunnanensis. It sets seed really freely so just about every nursery around the country has made a selection and named it (including us!). You can recognise it by its small leaves and creamy cup shaped blooms. You can hedge it and clip it but it is easier to start with a variety which is more generous in the leafage department.

Several decades ago, the late Northland plant breeder Os Blumhardt released Bubbles and Mixed Up Miss onto the market and these hybrids had many advantages over the species as garden plants. They are still tidy plants when juvenile, but nothing remarkable as they mature.

Now there is an explosion of new michelias on the market. Many are just the aforementioned M.laevifolia selections. Some are hybrids. I must declare an interest here. The ones you see being marketed as “Fairy Magnolias” are ours. For we are in the midst of a longstanding love affair with the michelias.

When camellia petal blight first showed up, my plant breeding husband immediately abandoned camellias and started on michelias. After about 17 years we have many, probably into the 1000s by now but we have never counted, as he has pursued breeding goals. They are in shelter belts, hedges, around the garden, through the nursery areas – anywhere there is space. Fairy Magnolia Blush was the first release a few years ago, bringing pink into the colour range. Cream and White are being released this year.

What we love about michelias is their versatility. They can be clipped tightly, even in topiaries. They make good hedges, even pleached into hedges on stilts. Some can become specimen trees without being forest giants. They give us masses of flowers, many are scented and they are pretty much free of all pests and diseases. They are an all round useful plant family.

We would not be without them.

Our new star - Fairy Magnolia White to be released this year

Our new star – Fairy Magnolia White to be released this year

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.