Tag Archives: Magnolia Vulcan

The story of the red magnolias

Vulcan to the left, Lanarth to the right

Vulcan to the left, Lanarth to the right

Few people realise that the story of the red magnolias is a New Zealand story. Probably even fewer realise that when it comes to stronger colours in magnolias, we get the best colour in the world here.

I am talking about deciduous magnolias. The evergreen grandiflora types are resolutely white in bloom and adding colour to the softer-leafed, evergreen michelias is very much a work in progress. But deciduous reds, we do well.

Most deciduous magnolias are in the white and pink colour range and very lovely many of them are too. But with many plant genus, there is always that quest to extend the range of flower form and colour, to build on what happens in nature to get a better performing, showier garden plant. Some of it is about pushing boundaries to see what can be done. A truly blue rose is still an unfulfilled quest but it is highly likely it will come sooner or later.

Some would argue that we do not yet have truly red magnolias and there is truth in that. There is no scarlet, no fire engine red. All the red varieties on the market still retain a blue cast to them and fade out to pink or purple tones rather than to the orange end of the colour spectrum. But if you line one of the red magnolias up against a purple one, it is clear that they are a different colour.

This (liliiflora 'Nigra')

This (liliiflora ‘Nigra’)

I started by saying that the story of red magnolias is a New Zealand story. In fact it started as our family story. Back in the 1970s, Felix Jury wondered if he could get a large flowered, solid coloured red magnolia on a smaller growing tree. He started with the red species – M. liliifora ‘Nigra’. In itself, ‘Nigra’ is a nice enough, low spreading magnolia but nothing showy. He crossed it with the very showy, indubitably purple ‘Lanarth’ (technically M. campbellii var. mollicamata ‘Lanarth’). The rest, as they say, is history.

crossed with this (Lanarth)

crossed with this (Lanarth)

‘Vulcan’ took the magnolia world by storm. This was the break in colour and form. It is not perfect. We know that. The flowers do not age gracefully. It flowers too early in the season for some areas. It does not develop its depth of colour or size of bloom in colder climates and is a shadow of its own self in most UK and European destinations. But after more than 20 years, it is still hugely popular and very distinctive, particularly in Australia and New Zealand. It set the standard and it opened the door to other cultivars.

... and the result was this: Vulcan

… and the result was this: Vulcan

In due course, but slowly, slowly, Mark followed on from his father. He raised hundreds of seedlings and named ‘Black Tulip’ (the darkest of the reds), ‘Felix Jury’ and ‘Burgundy Star’.

Fellow breeder, Vance Hooper, started his programme on the reds and he has named several. The best known is ‘Genie’. Like Mark, he is continuing determinedly down the red magnolia line in the quest for perfection, although improvement or variation will do as steps along the way.

There are other reds on the NZ market now, though none from sustained breeding programmes to match those undertaken by Mark and Vance.

Black Tulip - the first of the second generation red magnolias

Black Tulip – the first of the second generation red magnolias

It appears that it is ‘Black Tulip’ that has enabled the rise of new selections in UK and Europe. It sets seed and every man and their dog is now raising seed and naming selections. Mark is a little wry as he comments that he raised hundreds of plants to get one ‘Black Tulip’ whereas others raise a few seed and name several. He has an ever-decreasing level of patience for amateurs who, as he says, “raise five seedlings and name six of them” based on the first or second flowering only, when he is still assessing seedlings which are 20 years old and showing their adult form, habit and performance.

So New Zealand is about to lose its position of world domination in the red magnolias. But we still get better colour here than others do overseas. There is no certainty yet as to whether that is related to our mild climate, our soils, the root stock used or the quality of light – likely a combination of all. ‘Felix Jury’, which can flower strong red for us is more an over-sized pink flamingo so far in European gardens. We are just relieved that it achieves full-sized flowers and plenty of them, even if it is not red in their conditions.

Magnolia Felix Jury at its best here

Magnolia Felix Jury at its best here

The quest for truer reds continues. A red that loses the magenta hue. Mark is assessing several with which he is quietly very pleased. They are not scarlet but they are an improvement in colour. Just don’t hold your breath. This is a long haul.

Finally, while NZ leads the world in reds, it was USA which gave us yellow magnolias. These all descend from one yellow American species – M. acuminata. I just say that for the record. Credit where credit is due.

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

The Winter Garden

Magnolia Lanarth has a short but glorious season

Magnolia Lanarth has a short but glorious season

I have been away for a couple of weeks. To the tropics, no less, but I need to let the experience percolate in my brain a little longer before I can translate it to anything of relevance for gardeners in our temperate climate.

What amazed me was coming home to our winter garden. When I left in mid July, the earliest magnolias were just showing colour and the first blooms, along with some of the narcissi. By early August, we have trees full of bloom. The garden is awash with scores of tui as the campanulata cherries flower. I briefly thought of writing about plants for winter colour but there is just so much in flower that it would quickly descend to a boring list.

If narcissus could look startled, these cyclamineus  growing in the park certainly do

If narcissus could look startled, these cyclamineus growing in the park certainly do

This is our winter, dear readers. Technically spring does not start until September 1. Gardening is different here to many countries.

If you have looked at British and northern European gardens, there is a long spell in winter when nothing happens. People basically put their gardens to bed and retreat indoors. A heavy dependence on deciduous perennials means that gardens which are full of foliage and bloom in warmer months look dead in winter. The majority of their trees are deciduous so become bare skeletons. It is why the definition of form becomes hugely important because that is all there is to look in the depths of winter. Hardy plants like buxus, yew and conifers give accents which are often the only statement plants in those cold months.

The same is probably true of many inland areas in the world (outside the tropics) where temperatures plummet. My Canberra-resident daughter is always astonished when she comes home in winter to see how lush and colourful we are compared to her arid, hard conditions.

Those who shun deciduous plants miss out on the wonder of plants like Magnolia Vulcan

Those who shun deciduous plants miss out on the wonder of plants like Magnolia Vulcan

For starters, our native plants are all evergreen. So too are most of the ornamental plants we favour in our gardens. Over the years, I have met a swag of customers who point blank refuse to have anything deciduous in their garden, which I think is a bit of a short sighted view. Some of the showiest plants of all are those which go dormant in the colder months and then leap into spectacular display – magnolias, for example. To my mind, there is a place for both evergreen and deciduous plants in gardens.

I do, however, find it curious when I see people unquestioningly grabbing the fundamentals of garden design from other climates without considering the application to our conditions. Most of us like some element of design and definition in our gardens, though there are looser styles which don’t rely on these – meadow, woodland, prairie and food forests are examples. But that definition is not essential to give us something to look at in winter.

Similarly, I am inclined to silently snort when I hear people pontificating that foliage and form are the most important elements in plants because flowers are but transient (or worse, vulgar). I think we should celebrate living in a climate which is so temperate that we can have flowers and seasonal colour twelve months of the year, that we don’t need to put our gardens to bed for winter (or indeed for hot, dry summers) and that the clarity of light and the brightness of the sun seems just as great in July and August as it is in January. We just have shorter daylight hours, lower temperatures and a few more storms.

Being so temperate, few gardeners in this country have conditions where there is a sharp seasonal change. Most of us just drift imperceptibly from one season to the next with flowering extended over longer periods. The mid season camellias are at their peak here – more winter than spring flowering in this country. The snowdrops are passing over, but the dwarf narcissi are flowering all round the place and many of the lachenalias are blooming. Daphne scent hangs heavy in the air. The earliest rhododendrons are blooming already, michelias are opening.

And the magnolias. Do not forget the magnolias. Lanarth has a short but spectacular early season. M. campbellii is at its peak, red Vulcan is opening more flowers every day. The most spectacular time of our gardening year is upon us already, and it is still winter.

I rarely complain about the winter garden here.

While not usually fans of variegated flowers, The Czar var on the back lawn is an exception

While not usually fans of variegated flowers, The Czar var on the back lawn is an exception

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

Passing the sniff measurement test – fragrance in the garden

Magnolia Vulcan - spectacular and magnificent in flower but too far up to ever smell

Magnolia Vulcan – spectacular and magnificent in flower but too far up to ever smell

When I entered my teens, my mother gave me a book on charm. I can only recall two pieces of advice from it, though I read it time and again. One was to err on the side of restraint – that one white accessory with a little black dress may be stunning but three or four are bitsy (think Audrey Hepburn-esque style). The second was not to apply perfume before 10am. Until mid morning, the subtle scent from one’s morning bath should carry one through and to add perfume on top is heavy handed and inappropriate. Understatement was an integral part of charm in the sixties.

It was the perfume rule that had me thinking (though the merit of subtlety in accessorizing is a handy rule of thumb and not just for clothing). In years of plant retailing, I met a scary number of people – always women – who would only buy a plant if it was fragrant.

As a defining attribute, I think fragrance is over-rated and doesn’t stand up to logical scrutiny. It is different in cut flowers. The wafting fragrance from a vase of flowers indoors is a delight but even then you need quite a large amount of very fragrant flowers to scent an entire room.

Seriously, apply the sniff test in the garden if you are obsessed with growing scented plants. There are not that many plants that will pass the metre sniff test – that is, able to perfume the air a metre beyond the plant and that usually requires a warm, calm day. Some daphnes will do it, as will the rare Michelia alba and proper orange blossom.

Luculia Fragrant Pearl - passing the 50cm sniff test

Luculia Fragrant Pearl – passing the 50cm sniff test

Come in a little closer and there are a range of plants which will tease you with a hint of fragrance as you pass by – philadelphus or mock orange blossom, luculia, auratum lilies, the stronger scented jonquils. But if you stop and immerse your olfactory organ (that is your nose) in the reproductive organs of the plant (that is the flower), there is a very strong perfume.

Therein lies the problem. Generally you have to stop and sniff a flower to get a true sense of its scent, or, in many cases, any scent at all. And nobody goes around their garden sniffing each and every flower every time. So the presence of perfume is often irrelevant in practice.
Some flowers are so subtly scented that you need the right conditions to get any fragrance at all. Scented camellias are of this ilk, but the public romanticism is such that merely advertising this attribute will help sales. I know.

Then there are plants where scent is related to time of day. How many people have bought the common port wine magnolia (Michelia figo) because of the promise of heady scent, only to be disappointed? The flowers are small and insignificant, the scent comes in late afternoon to night so you won’t get a whiff of anything at other times, and then the actual aroma is closer to the old Juicy Fruit chewing gum than anything else.

The bottom line is that plants have not evolved with scent to please humans. So there is no guarantee that the biggest, showiest and brightest blooms will also have the best fragrance. More often, the scent is there to attract pollinators so it is frequently linked to rather small, insignificant blooms which might otherwise pass unnoticed. There are a whole lot of scented rhododendrons and, almost without exception, they are white or pastel coloured. Bright flowers don’t need scent to attract their pollinator when they do it by colour. Night scented plants are generally pollinated by night flying insects so they don’t need to be fragrant during the day and they don’t need size and colour.

Floral scent is delightful and much appreciated. No synthetic scent can match the best natural fragrances. But those natural scents are by their very essence ephemeral. To extend their life, you have to capture the scent in oils, perfumes, pot pourri and the like. To make it mandatory that a plant be scented before you will buy it, is to elevate one characteristic beyond its merit. I regard scent as a bonus but first and foremost, a flowering plant must be interesting, attractive and appropriate to the position.

And when the next person asks me whether such and such a magnolia is scented, I may weep. We grow many magnolias here and revere them above other flowering trees. Many of ours are large now, and I can safely state that I have never stood beneath a large magnolia in flower and been amazed at the heady fragrance. Stick your nose in the flower and some are pleasantly scented, but that is pretty hard to do when the flower is five metres up the tree. Who cares when the floral display so astounding? Must the lily be gilded further with compulsory scent?

Tikorangi Notes: June 19, 2011

Spring Festival is one of the prettiest in flower this week  though spring is still a way off here

Spring Festival is one of the prettiest in flower this week though spring is still a way off here

Tikorangi Notes: Sunday June 19, 2011

Our mild autumn continues though technically we are now well into winter. It may be wet but it is not generally cold. The ski fields inland and south seem to be getting nervous (and I am wondering whether the Christmas gift of a season lift pass to our snowboarding son was badly timed for the one season in a decade when the snows will be patchy and unpredictable) but it does mean that we are enjoying great gardening conditions. Except for last Friday which was cold (calm but cloudy and cold), daytime temperatures remain in the late teens and night temperatures are not dropping much below 10 degrees Celsius.

Lachenalia bulbifera, naturalised beneath a large pine tree

Lachenalia bulbifera, naturalised beneath a large pine tree

Magnolia Vulcan is opening its first blooms on the various plants we have around the property. Mid June is early. We usually expect peak flowering later in July. A hail storm last night damaged those early buds and blooms but there are plenty more to come which will be undamaged. The early lachenalias are open – red L. bulbifera, the yellow of Mark’s L. reflexa hybrids and the common L. aloides. The first of the snowdrops are in flower. We never get snow here but Galanthus S Arnott is wonderfully successful on our climate and there are few plants as pretty as the simple snowdrops. The sasanqua camellias are passing over and the japonicas and hybrids are taking over. Spring Festival is particularly pretty this week. With petal blight already hitting before many varieties have even opened, it is probably time to be a little more meticulous in recording which varieties show less damage and still put on a good show. Petal blight is probably here to stay. It will take breeding and selection to find a way past the ravages.

Just one new post this week – our Tikorangi Diary which records Mark’s unsuccessful efforts so far to extract olive oil with a zero carbon footprint and plans for our designated Citrus Grove.

We have been discussing our citrus trees here – somewhere around 20 different specimens which are very well established (as in some are probably around 50 years old now) and I have plans for a series of posts on growing fruit trees and the aim for self sufficiency and variety and how realistic this is in our climate.

The first blooms on Magnolia Vulcan were hit by hailstones last night

The first blooms on Magnolia Vulcan were hit by hailstones last night

Magnolia diary the first, 9 August 2009

Click to see all Magnolia diary entries

Click on the Magnolia diary logo above to see all diary entries

On August 9, 2009, it would be fair to say that we are a week or two late starting a magnolia diary. M.campbellii is already in full flower down in our park. Our tree dates back to the mid 1950s and is one of the oldest magnolias we have here. It is set in front of distant Mount Taranaki, our near perfect iconic volcanic cone and the reason why the movie, The Last Samurai, was filmed locally. It is cheaper to film here than in Japan and our mountain is a reasonable ring-in for Mount Fuji (I have even encountered a film crew shooting a Japanese car commercial down our road!) In New Zealand, campbellii is the first to flower and at times it can be a close run thing to see if the leaves fall before the flowers open.

M.campbellii and Mount Taranaki at Tikorangi

M.campbellii with Mount Taranaki beyond at Tikorangi The Jury Garden, Taranaki New Zealand.

Magnolia Vulcan is opening its flowers. The tree in our carpark has maybe a dozen early flowers open but it is clearly warmer down the driveway where a Vulcan tree has many more flowers. The original tree, bred by Felix Jury, is in the neighbour’s property (formerly the Jury farm) and we no longer have access to monitor it. Vulcan was a true colour break in its day and opens remarkable wine coloured flowers in NZ and in Australia. However it is patchy at best in Europe and inclined to be disappointing in the UK. We rate it as a small tree here. The first flowers are always the deepest colour and the largest in size.

Early season flowers on Vulcan in our carpark

Early season flowers on Vulcan

The original Lanarth in our park is a week into opening though not quite at its peak yet. It shows blooms in that beautiful, intense stained glass purple but also pale flowers at the same time. This tree dates back to the mid fifties and it took three attempts to import and successfully establish the genuine article. One of the early attempts, however, yielded up the Lanarth seedling subsequently named Mark Jury, which became the secret weapon in the early magnolia breeding programme here. Mark is not yet showing colour.



Magnolia Black Tulip in warmer positions on our property has opened its first flowers but the original tree has yet to show colour. We have the very first flower on Felix Jury opening. Along with M. campbellii, our reds are the earliest of the season.

Our winter this year has been colder than usual (visible frost on a number of occasions although we rarely drop below zero degrees celsius at night), drier than usual, not very windy but with our usual high winter light levels.