The Yellow Magnolias and Honey Tulip

Honey Tulip - looking very good this week

Honey Tulip – looking very good this week

There is some relief here this week as our newest magnolia, Honey Tulip, is looking particularly good. It is always a bit nerve wracking releasing a new cultivar on the market and hoping we have it right.

We are still a little bemused by a communication from some random person when Honey Tulip was first shown in an overseas publication. I will have to paraphrase it because I must have deleted it in irritation at the time, but it said something along the lines of: “It is good that Mark Jury is discerning in the magnolias he names, but the world has enough yellow magnolias already….” It then proceeded to instruct my Mark on what he should be breeding for instead.

The international world of magnolias is pretty small, the number of international magnolia breeders even fewer. We know most of them by repute, if not personally. This email did not come from anyone we had heard of before. What was galling was that in the heady world of new magnolias, Honey Tulip represents a genuine step in flower form for the yellows.

Honey Tulip - a lucky break in flower form and performance

Honey Tulip – a lucky break in flower form and performance

The yellow magnolias descend from a single species and while most magnolias originate from parts of Asia, the yellow deciduous M. acuminata and the evergreen grandiflora magnolias are from USA. M. acuminata is from eastern USA up into southern Ontario in Canada. We can remember when it first came into this country maybe 25 years ago, along with four of the earliest yellow hybrids – Yellow Bird, Yellow Fever, Elizabeth and Koban Dori. They were a collector’s novelty. Who knew that magnolia flowers could be yellow?

It did not take that long to realise that the yellow magnolias were not quite like the big pink, red, purple and white ones. There are a few problems yet to be solved. M. acuminata itself grows very rapidly and very large which takes it beyond the size most gardens can accommodate. The flowers are small, very small by magnolia standards, though they have good fragrance. Mind you, it has to be a very strong scent to mean anything when the blooms are 20 metres up above.

However, the biggest problem with acuminata and most of the hybrids is that the flowers come so late in the season that they coincide with the new foliage which then hides them. We are of the opinion that the whole point of a deciduous magnolia is to have all those fat, furry buds exploding into a mass of blooms on a bare tree in late winter and early spring. So little flowers, no matter what colour, obscured by masses of fresh foliage, are not going to set the world on fire.

Magnolia Yellow Fever planted on our road boundary

Magnolia Yellow Fever planted on our road boundary

We have not kept buying the many new yellow hybrids that have come on the market. There is a limit to how much space we have and too many of them show the same flaws. In a large garden, the best performer we have seen so far remains the early American hybrid with the unfortunate name of Yellow Fever. It is not the strongest yellow but it does flower on bare wood and is a pretty primrose, unlike Elizabeth which is more cream.

There is yellow form of the Asian M. denudata but we have not heard of it being imported to this country yet and have not seen it in person. It is difficult to judge colour from the range of hues shown on the internet. A form called ‘Yellow River’ is being sold overseas but the nature of its breeding and origin is unclear. Certainly it came out of China and it has denudata origins but whether it is a yellow sport of that species, a natural hybrid or a controlled cross seems unclear. Even less clear is when or if it will become available in this country. Only time will tell whether international breeders get the jump on different yellow magnolias using denudata yellow, with or without acuminata.

For all these reasons, our Honey Tulip represented a significant breeding step. It flowers on bare wood, before the foliage. It does not appear that it is going to be of timber tree stature. The colour is a pretty butterscotch but the big breakthrough is the form. While not huge flowers, the tulip shaped blooms are larger than most other yellows – very similar in fact to a soft yellow form of Magnolia Black Tulip. It was also a lucky break because it was the only one of the plants from that particular cross that flowered in that form and colour.

The ultimate challenge is to get a pretty yellow Iolanthe with big cup and saucer flowers. Mark has about 20 years left in him to work towards this goal. I wonder then if the overseas critic who saw himself as an expert on yellow magnolias will concede that there is always room for improvement.

The ultimate breeding challenge - is a yellow Iolanthe even possible?

The ultimate breeding challenge – is a yellow Iolanthe even possible?

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

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10 thoughts on “The Yellow Magnolias and Honey Tulip

  1. Andre´Johnke

    Dear Abbie,

    Magnolia Yellow River was launched in Western Europe some years ago as ‘the deepest yellow Magnolia ever raised’. It was first named Fei Huang, but then renamed Yellow River which according to some sources is just the translation of the Chinese name. The plants are usually sold with a most ridiculous tag showing a photoshopped flower colour which seems to be from Mars. In reality the flowers are a very pale cream with a very slight touch of yellow when they just open but then quickly fade to off white. The plant itself looks like pure denudata and is obviously only a slightly different colour form of that species. There is nothing special about this plant but it has the one advantage that all the flowers appear before the leaves, so it is obviously not a hybrid with acuminata. There was also another plant which was simply sold as M.denudata Yellow, but this is now rarely available as the name Yellow River was probably the better seller. There is much controversy whether this is a different plant or just the same as Yellow River, but having seen both plants flowering side by side I could not find any difference. Thousands of these plants had been imported by a Dutch nusery from different growers in China, so it is very likely that the same plant is grown there under different names and all the material has got mixed up in commmerce. After all these complications, these are really inferior plants which are not worth growing. It is probably true that there are too many yellow magnolia hybrids on the market already, but 80% of them are third class plants that should be allowed to disappear. Much in contrast to this is your wonderful Honey Tulip. This is truly a class act. I have not seen it in flower, but apparently it is not only yellow but seems to be a most delicate combination of pastel shades which is aptly reflected in the name. As always with a Jury hybrid all the features of this plant are different and something new with nothing comparable on the market. Applause to Mark!!!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thank you, Andre. That is most informative. We won’t worry too much about not having the yellow denudata here to work with, then. I laughed at your colour reference. I was taking photos of a vase of Honey Tulip indoors and managed to get images which showed a startling shade of gold. All we could do was laugh and vow never to use those particular photos.
      Kind regards, Abbie

  2. William

    Everybody has an opinion and is all to eager to voice it. It is best to just shrug it off and go about one’s business.
    In regards to ‘Honey Tulip’, I am eagerly awaiting when I may be able to try one in my garden here in western Sweden, zone 4b-5a (USDA). Hopefully, the M. acuminata has imparted hardiness to the cross. The flower shape is exceptional for a yellow! However, in my cool summer climate, it will most likely only be a cream colour.
    Keep up the great work!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It will be interesting to see how tolerant it is of colder climates. We can not test for hardiness here in our temperate conditions.

      1. William

        Well then, what are you waiting for? Send one over right away!
        Whoops, sorry, my impatience and enthusiasm got the best of me!

  3. Anton

    Hello Abbie,

    I think the person is absolutely right; the world has enough “yellow” magnolias but with the introduction of Mark´s yellow, it seems that the world now has an outstanding one. Even if the flowers would be only near as good as the photos imply. The `Honey Tulip´ I already got will be planted next spring and I´m very curious about it´s performance in our climate.
    Mark is doing a great job and I´m looking forward to see a yellow `Iolanthe´.

    Greetings from Germany

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