Signs of spring

First published in Woman magazine, July 2022 edition and reprinted here with additional photographs.

Magnolia campbellii is always the first to open a flower bud, seen here framed against the distant peak of Mount Taranaki.

I am a Jury. Ergo, I love deciduous magnolias. Why does one follow the other, you may wonder. My very late father-in-law, Felix Jury, was the creator of such varieties as Magnolia ‘Vulcan’, ‘Iolanthe’ and others and we still have the original plants here in the garden at Tikorangi. I am married to the man who created ‘Black Tulip’, ‘Felix Jury’, ‘Honey Tulip’ and ‘Burgundy Star’ with more to come soon.

I have long declared that the first blooms on the magnolias herald the start of a new gardening year. The first one to open for us is always the pink Magnolia campbellii in our park. It is one of the earliest harbingers of spring and we usually get the first flower a few days after the winter solstice which is around June 21. 

Enter Matariki which we celebrated as a nation on June 24 this year. While we accept the Gregorian calendar dating back to 1582, that only determines the elements of time which are derived from Earth’s position in the solar system – such as the length of individual months, equinoxes and solstices. The assignment of certain dates to celebrations is an arbitrary human decision. The determination that January 1 is the start of a new year is based entirely on northern hemisphere tradition and it happens to come 9 or 10 days after the winter solstice. What I find fascinating is that Maori arrived at the same conclusion, give or take a few days. It may be six months out of step as far as the calendar goes but it is synchronised with the seasons.

Matariki is determined by the rising in the sky of the star formation generally known as the Pleiades and the start of the new lunar year. It just so happens that Matariki occurs within a few days of the winter solstice in New Zealand. It seems perfectly logical to me and of much greater relevance to my gardening year than the January 1 date.

Our pink Magnolia campbellii is not quite as predictable as the solstice dates and it doesn’t hit its peak display until well into July, but that first bloom bravely opens around the time of Matariki and is a significant seasonal marker for me. Each year, I don my woolly gloves on fine frosty mornings and head out to capture the one beautiful line of sight we have with the blooms on the bare tree and the snowy slopes of te mounga – Mount Taranaki – behind. I am using a zoom lens – te mounga is somewhere over 35km distant.

Over time, most magnolias grow into trees. From left to right are an unnamed pink seedling, Magnolia ‘Felix Jury’ and Magnolia ‘Manchu Fan’.

That magnolia was first sold in New Zealand in the latter half of the nineteenth century by a Lower Hutt nurseryman commonly referred to as Quaker Mason on account of him being a Quaker. It was also the first magnolia planted in our garden by my father-in-law, Felix Jury in the early 1950s. This pink M. campbellii is probably the most recognisable form in the country. Interestingly, that is unusual internationally. In the wild, most campbelliis are white. The pink ones are largely limited to a small area around Darjeeling in India and we should count ourselves lucky that Quaker Mason just happened to get a particularly good form of the unusual pink one to popularise here.

Looking up into the floral skyspaper of Magnolia sargentiana robusta

The magnolia flowering season from late June to September is a special time of year for us. We have many magnolias, both named varieties and species and unnamed hybrids from the breeding programme. This is a plant family where the larger the plants get, the bigger show they make.

For me, the deciduous magnolias hold pride of place. That display of bare blooms on a tree with no foliage can take my breath away. Because we have large trees, I am often looking up from below and I describe it as floral skypaper.

The purple petals of Magnolia campbellii var mollicomata ‘Lanarth’ forming a carpet beneath.

When I look down, I see the petal carpets on the ground and I have a great fondness for petal carpets. However, I will concede that they are not great on paths, driveways and sealed areas where the carpet can soon turn to slippery brown sludge. We will use a leaf rake or leaf blower on sealed areas but leave the petals on grass or garden.

And looking up to ‘Lanarth’ against a grey wintry sky

Most of the deciduous magnolias are Asiatic in origin – particularly areas of China, northern India and Nepal. The exception is the one truly yellow deciduous species – Magnolia acuminata – which is from North America. It is one of the parents of all the yellow hybrids that have become available in the last 25 years.

USA is also the homeland of the most popular evergreen magnolias which are widely grown here. These are characterised by heavy, leathery leaves and large, white flowers. I am not a fan of the evergreen grandiflora types; the ratio of flower to foliage is not high enough for my liking. I prefer the 100% flower to 0% foliage of most deciduous varieties.

Michelias, on the other hand, are all Asian in origin with many also being found in tropical areas, so into Southern China, Vietnam and Thailand. These are also evergreen but with softer, smaller leaves than the American leathery ones, a higher ratio of flowers and they are smaller growing overall. Botanically, they are magnolias but they look very different to the deciduous magnolias and they fill a different role in the garden.   

Magnolia Iolanthe in pink
Magnolia Apollo in purple
Magnolia Black Tulip in red
Magnolia Lotus in white
  • Deciduous magnolias come in shades of pink, purple, red, white and yellow.
  • Magnolias are ancient, evolving before bees emerged. It is thought that they were originally pollinated by beetles. Now they provide a food source for bees at a time of short supply in late winter.  
  • We get deeper, richer colouring in magnolias in New Zealand. It is likely to be related to our soils, climate and the clarity of light here. The same plant can look very different with the colour washing out, particularly in Northern Europe and the UK where winters are longer and colder and light levels lower.
  • New Zealand is recognised internationally as leading the way on breeding red magnolia hybrids, initiated by Felix Jury with ‘Vulcan’ and continued by Mark Jury, Vance Hooper and Ian Baldick.
  • No, you can not get very large blooms on a deciduous magnolia that will stay a small plant under two metres. Smaller growing varieties will have smaller blooms and the vast majority of deciduous magnolias are trees, not shrubs.
  • If you have a magnolia where the buds either drop off or fail to open properly, it is a sign  either of frost damage or pest damage by rats or possums.
  • When deciduous magnolias have new leaves that are clearly distorted on opening, it is an indication of spray drift. Lawn spray is the main culprit. If you feel you must spray your lawn, don’t do it in early spring when the leaf buds on magnolias are about to break into growth.
  • The limited range of species that were all that was available in the past could take 15 to 20 years before they set flower buds. Nowadays, you can expect magnolias to bloom within a couple of years of planting and some will even be sold with flower buds.
Magnolia Honey Tulip in yellow

6 thoughts on “Signs of spring

  1. tonytomeo

    Pictures such as these are what convinced my colleague to grow the magnolias back before our facilities were able to accommodate them. It would be nice if another nursery here could specialize in them. However, they remain somewhat rare here. I can not explain why. They perform very well, and are more popular farther north. In all of the landscapes at the Conference Center where I still work a few days weekly, there are only three magnolias, and one of those three is an evergreen Southern magnolia.

    Reply
    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Fair enought to grow natives in the very areas where they belong, but there are a whole lot of other lovely options that could be grown as well.

      Reply
      1. tonytomeo

        We grew rhododendron and azalea, along with andromeda and eventually camellia because they were adaptable to the environmental conditions, and prior to the addition of camellia, there was no need for deer fencing. (There are not many places in California that suit such crops.) Magnolia could have been happy there as well, except that we could barely tend to what we already grew, so were unable to tend to the magnolia. Furthermore, the market was limited, so many of the trees stayed in stock until they got old. It was saddening. The trees that were added to the arboretum are grand, but they were not for sale.

  2. Belynda Jack

    Oh Abby,
    What can you do when your neighbour plants a magnolia on the boundary which grows a couple of metres per year will block out sunshine to your garden ??
    Help??

    Reply

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