Tag Archives: Mark Jury

Mark’s story

* as told to The NZ Rhododendron, the annual journal of NZRA Council and Pukeiti Trust Boad. December 2017. Photos are mine. 

Mark could perhaps be described as having chlorophyll running in his veins. He was the afterthought child in his family, quite a bit younger than his brothers. He remembers tagging along with his parents and visitors, listening in as they discussed plants around the Tikorangi garden in North Taranaki. “It was quite a lonely and isolated life in the country and I really wanted the social contact, even if it was with older people. It was only later that I realised what I learned in those early years.”

Mark was determined to head off to university, the first in his farming family to do so. It was not an easy path but he graduated with Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences, majoring in Psychology. He enrolled in a post-graduate diploma in guidance and counselling but withdrew half way through the year. “I was the youngest on the course and all the others were teachers with regrets. One would have liked to be a potter, another dreamed of running a country pub. I didn’t want to get to my late 40s and look back with regret. By that stage, Abbie and I had already been married a couple of years and I went home and told her I wanted to withdraw from the course and follow some dreams.”

From there, he taught himself to draw from a book by John Ruskin, taught himself to turn wood to a high quality and then set out to learn how to propagate and, from there, to build a nursery.

“When I started here, there was no nursery. Dad was a just a farmer and a gardener who liked to breed plants. He had taught himself the rudiments of propagation. I started to build the nursery from one wheelbarrow up and I set out to learn how to propagate and to grow plants commercially. It was a case of learning through trial and error. It has always surprised me how successful the nursery was.” Mark credits the access to his father’s plant hybrids for giving him new material to mark out his nursery as different to the rest. “Dad had pretty much stopped hybridising by then. It was only ever a hobby for him. I started more systematically to see how far I could push plant breeding. And as the plant breeding grew in range and scale, I had the nursery to cope with growing on the material.” He started with saturation coverage of a large plant of Camellia pitardii in a Urenui garden.

From an early stage, Felix made it clear that the garden he and his wife Mimosa had built would pass to Mark and his family. Mark and Abbie are demonstrably aware of what it means to be on a family property that is already on its fourth generation.

Arisaema seedlings are for the garden at Tikorangi, not commercial release

Mark is clear in his mind about the hybridising he does which has commercial potential and that which is solely to try and get better plants for their own garden. He is currently working with galanthus, aiming for later flowering cultivars which perform as well in Tikorangi conditions as Galanthus nivalus ‘S. Arnott’. He is continuing the efforts of his late father with cyclamineus narcissi, looking for sterile selections that bloom from every bulb, as Felix Jury’s ‘Twilight’ does. In the hellebores, improving garden performance and getting cultivars which hold their blooms above the foliage are the aims, as well as looking for sterility if possible. In the arisaemas, he wanted to extend the colour range and the season and to get some hybrid vigour into A. sikokianum types. He is often to be found out and about with his magnifying glass and paintbrush.

The garden is always the star in Mark’s mind. “This is a poor man’s garden,” he says. “It was never made with a big budget and if we had to buy in all the plants we want, we could never afford to keep it going, let alone expand as we are. To get masses of snowdrops to the point where they naturalise themselves to or to get a new 40 metre of border of auratum lilies, we have to raise our own from seed. And when raising from seed, I often like to start with controlled crosses to see if I can get better outcomes, rather than just using open pollinated material.”

The garden is a treasure trove of plant material, some of which may or may not go into commercial production at some stage in the future but which currently has no market. “We have some thrip-resistant rhododendrons with full trusses if that plant genus comes back into fashion. At the moment, the market is so small that there is no commercial advantage in releasing them.” The same is true of coloured and variegated cordylines and a range of camellias.

Magnolia Felix Jury

The creation of new cultivars with international potential has been a major focus. In the deciduous magnolias, Mark has named and released four out of many hundreds that he has raised. But he says he has the next three possibles under trial. Of those released, the magnolia that he named for his father is his greatest pride. “It is what Felix was trying to get to – good colour in a large cup and saucer bloom, so I called it ‘Felix Jury’. This one is doing really well internationally which is particularly pleasing. It has already been given an award of garden merit from the RHS.”

A range of michelia seedling blooms

Fairy Magnolia White, with bonus kereru

The michelias are a source of frequent disappointment to Mark. “We have raised so many of them now and have a good range of new colours. But it is so difficult to get everything in one plant – clean colour, good size of bloom and plenty of them over an extended period, compact, bushy growth, easy to propagate and scented. Keeping the scent is the most elusive attribute of all.” Mark has named three so far, marketed under the ‘Fairy Magnolia’ brand, but there is a long way to go yet and he keeps persevering, often with several hundred new seedlings a year.

Camellia Fairy Blush, Rhododendron Floral Sun and Magnolia Honey Tulip

Amongst the camellias, Mark names his selection of ‘Fairy Blush’ as his personal favourite. He and Abbie have chosen to use it extensively for clipped hedging in their garden because of its long flowering season and its good habit of growth. ‘Floral Sun’ remains his pick amongst the rhododendrons.

Daphne Perfume Princess

Ironically, it is a daphne, a one-off plant from a speculative breeding effort, that may prove to be the most lucrative cultivar internationally. ‘Perfume Princess’ basically looks like an odora although it often flowers down the stem like bholua. It is the size of the flower, the vigour of the plant and the length of the flowering season that sets this plant apart from other daphnes. “It is just a brilliant plant to grow and a terrific nursery plant to produce,” Mark says. “That is not true of most daphnes which can be very difficult to produce in containers.” Both the local and international markets for a daphne eclipse the market for magnolias, even if the plant itself is less spectacular.

“We stopped doing mailorder in 2003, stopped wholesale in 2008 and phased out retail after that. The phone calls and emails in search of plants haven’t stopped in the time since but we were really glad to shut all that down. Abbie always described nursery work as being like factory work but in better surroundings. There was no fun in it but it enabled us to get to where we are today.” Mark is quietly proud of the fact that royalties on plant sales, particularly overseas, are what enabled them to retire from the nursery trade and pursue their interests in the garden.

The garden is still expanding. They closed to the public 3 years ago and have been enjoying the freedom to experiment.  “We’ll open again at some stage, maybe 2019. For the annual garden festival, at least. Though we are unlikely to ever open again for extended periods during the year.”

Mark and the Magnolia Felix Jury tree at Wisley on the left. Mark with a collection of blooms from different seedlings at home in Tikorangi

Advertisements

The colour purple. Magnolia Lanarth

Lanarth in all its purple glory

Ah, the colour purple. I have yet to see a purple magnolia that eclipses the glorious sight of ‘Lanarth’ in full bloom. That is Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’ to be precise, not to be confused with the pink and white Magnolia campbellii var campbellii about which I wrote last month. Same species but different variants.

‘Lanarth’ is another example of a variety that belongs in every magnolia collection but, as a single specimen for the home gardener, it is not without its issues. Even if you can find one for sale – and it is not easy to propagate and get growing strongly – it is not what is known as a reliable, commercial plant. Its biggest problem is that it only sets flower buds on its branch tips. This means that all of them come out at once, giving a spectacular but brief show and a bad bout of spring weather can cut that display overnight. Modern hybrids are often selected for the plant’s ability to set flower buds down the stems so they come out in sequence over a longer time. We are happy to enjoy this species in its glory and I have a particular affection for what I call petal carpets. ‘Lanarth’ creates a wonderful carpet down by our largest pond.

Besides, this particular magnolia has a special place in our own family history. Mark’s father Felix imported what was meant to be ‘Lanarth’ in the early 1950s when first planting out the park area  here. It took some years to get large enough to flower and when it did, it was clearly something else. Enquiries from the nursery source, Hilliers in the UK, established that what he had was most likely a cross with M. sargentiana var robusta. They sent a replacement, grafted this time to ensure that it was correct and that is the plant we have growing as a splendid specimen. Felix named the earlier seedling for his youngest son and Magnolia ‘Mark Jury’ went on to be the not-so-secret Jury weapon in breeding a whole new range of magnolias. It is the father of ‘Athene’, ‘Atlas’, ‘Iolanthe’, ‘Lotus’, ‘Milky Way’ and ‘Serene’ and is also influential in the following generations of ‘Felix Jury’, ‘Black Tulip’ and ‘Honey Tulip’.

The true ‘Lanarth’ finally flowered here in the 1960s and it became the key to Felix’s best known success – the colour breakthrough from purple into red tones, first seen in Magnolia ‘Vulcan’. The rest, as they say, is history and New Zealand is now recognised internationally as the home of the best red hybrids. These days with the downstream breeding, the purple tones of ‘Lanarth’ are being eliminated in favour of purer red shades. Now it is the case that there are several  good red magnolias on the market, but no large, purple-flowered, garden-friendly improvement on the original ‘Lanarth’ that we have seen. It has been attempted. We just haven’t seen one yet that we think is as good as, let alone better than the original.

Looking up into the sky, the petals can take on the look of stained glass

‘Lanarth’ originates from a seed, one of only three that germinated from those collected by plant hunter George Forrest in southern Yunnan, China, near the border with Burma in 1924. There were other collections of Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata around that time but most flowered pale. Being raised from seed, there was the typical seedling variation that one expects from these early specimens and ‘Lanarth’ was the stand-out plant, particularly in flower colour. In order to maintain the desirable characteristics of ‘Lanarth’, it is necessary to propagate subsequent plants vegetatively (not just to raise seed) – which means layering, budding or grafting because it is does not generally strike from cutting. So every magnolia named ‘Lanarth’ should be a genetic carbon copy of that first plant that was raised in the garden of the same name in Cornwall. Raised from seed, there is no guarantee that it will be the same as ‘Lanarth’ and it then goes back to its species name of M. campbellii var mollicomata.

There is always something to learn and we had not realised that Magnolia ‘Charles Raffill’ is a cross between the two different species of campbellii – that is var. campbellii and var mollicomata (though a paler form) so it is still technically a species, not a hybrid. If that is as clear as mud, then just accept the glory of purple ‘Lanarth’ for what it is.

The pollen of Lanarth is in the genes of the red Jury magnolias

It was Lanarth that enabled the colour breakthrough to the reds – in this case Vulcan looking at its very best

Magnolis ‘Mark Jury’ is thought to be half ‘Lanarth’ in its genes and has been a brilliant breeder parent.

First published in the August issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

Lanarth by our big pond

The Jury magnolia legacy – first published in the RHS Rhododendrons, Camellias and Magnolias 2017 yearbook

Back in 1973, when Mark and I were impoverished university students, his father, Felix, gave us the cheque he had received from Os Blumhardt for the right to release Magnolia ‘Serene’. It was for NZ$150 and that was the only money Felix ever received for any plant he bred. At the same time, Duncan and Davies released his Magnolia ‘Iolanthe’ but, despite being the powerhouse nursery of the southern hemisphere, paying breeders for their plants was never part of their operation. Sometimes we ponder how different the family finances might have been had Felix received even a very small royalty payment for his Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’, but that is another story. The remaining Felix Jury magnolia cultivars were not released until the late 1980s when Mark set up the plant nursery here. With the exception of ‘Vulcan’, where the immediate public response took us by surprise, the releases were all very low key.

Magnolia Apollo

Magnolia Athene

Magnolia Lotus

Magnolia Milky Way

It takes time for magnolias to prove themselves and it is only in the last couple of decades that the Jury magnolias have become known internationally. There aren’t many of them. Felix only named eight of his own breeding – Magnolias ‘Apollo’, ‘Athene’, ‘Atlas’, ‘Iolanthe’, ‘Lotus’, ‘Milky Way’, ‘Serene’ and ‘Vulcan™’ . We don’t include the variety M. ‘Mark Jury’ in that list because it arrived here as a seedling and all Felix did was to grow it and, in due course, name it. Mark vetoed his father’s suggestion of naming a few more because they were too close to ones already selected, although we have a few fine sister seedlings from those breeding lines in the garden here.

In his turn, Mark has named four deciduous magnolias so far – ‘Black Tulip’, ‘Burgundy Star™’, ‘Felix Jury’ and ‘Honey Tulip™’ – though he has raised many more controlled crosses than his father ever did. Records here do not include total numbers of plants raised but certainly Felix never raised a large number – maybe 50 or so. Mark has been much more focussed and a rough guess puts the number of deciduous magnolias raised to flowering size in excess of 1000. If a particular cross shows promise, Mark will locate the plants in places where they have the space to grow to maturity and, as the years pass, the display just gets better. There are a lot of what we call “also-rans” – not destined to be named but too good to chainsaw out. Late winter and early springtime here is simply glorious.

Magnolia Atlas

When it comes to naming a plant, consideration is given to whether it represents a breakthrough in some aspect and is significantly different to anything already named. It must also produce flowers on young plants, bloom on bare wood in our climate, not grow so rapidly as to indicate it will become a forest giant, propagate relatively easily and flower reliably every year while setting buds down the stems to prolong the season. That list may be why Mark has only named four so far.

At the time when Felix started crossing magnolias, there were few varieties available in New Zealand and most were species. He wanted to see if he could get large cup and saucer blooms with good colour, flowering on a young plant. His lucky breeding break came with the cultivar he imported from Hilliers. It was meant to be M. campbellii ssp mollicomata ‘Lanarth’ but when it bloomed for the first time, it was clearly a hybrid, probably ‘Lanarth’ x sargentiana robusta. He named it for his youngest son, Mark Jury. It proved to be an excellent breeder plant and five of Felix’s eight named cultivars used ‘Mark Jury’ as pollen donor.

Magnolia Iolanthe

We rate ‘Iolanthe’ as one of the very best he named. The original plant is still located beside our driveway and has now achieved magnificent stature at about 10 metres high and a canopy the same distance across after 50 years. Every year it takes our breath away with its beauty. The blooms have stayed very large (some cultivars produce smaller blooms once past juvenility) and because it sets flower buds down the stem, even the worst spring storms do not ruin the display for the year. At about two months in flower, it has one of the longest seasons.

Magnolia Serene

Serene is the last of the season to bloom for us and we have always been surprised that this top performing strawberry pink variety has not gained the reputation and market traction it deserves. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and with the passage of time, we think ‘Atlas’ would not meet the selection criteria today. Despite a huge flower, possible unequalled at the time, with good form and a pretty colour, its performance falls short because it only sets buds on the tips of branches. A storm can take out the flowering for the year. That said, it is one that appears to perform well in Britain. ‘Athene’ and ‘Milky Way’ are both wonderful performers but probably too similar to have named both. ‘Lotus’ is lovely but the pure white magnolia field is very crowded now. ‘Apollo’, while abundantly floriferous and more compact in its growth, does not have the same beauty of flower form that the others have.

Magnolia Vulcan

It was ‘Vulcan’ that cemented Felix’s reputation, even if this cultivar has never proven itself in the cooler climes of Britain and northern Europe. You will just have to take our word for it that in milder climates, it can be the most remarkable red colour and, for its time, it represented a colour breakthrough and set the standard for the next generations of red cultivars. We have a remarkable intensity and quality of light in New Zealand even in the depths of winter, and the first red buds to break in July never fail to impress. For many years after we first released this cultivar, we could track its flowering from north to south by the phone calls we received. That is a rare plant.

Over time and with many competing unnamed seedlings of the next generations flowering here, we certainly concede that ‘Vulcan’ blooms do not age gracefully and later flowers are much smaller and in murky purple shades. It appears that those later flowers are the best most British gardeners can ever expect to see in their conditions. Mark is still on the quest for the perfect Vulcan upgrade – a large bloom on a smaller tree, flowering later in the season to extend the climatic range and with colour that ages more gracefully, which means losing the purple undertones that the parentage of ‘Lanarth’ brought in. He is tantalisingly close to pure red but not yet ready to take the plunge and name another in his red series. Having named three so far, a fourth must be something different, special or a significant improvement.

Magnolia Black Tulip

‘Black Tulip’ was the first release of Mark’s cultivars and we were gratified by the immediate public response. Mark’s personal preference is for solid colour in blooms and in the windy climes of New Zealand, we have to select for heavy textured petals and firm blooms that can withstand the equinoctial winds that often strike at peak flowering. ‘Black Tulip’ certainly fitted these criteria and is suitable for smaller gardens though it will never be as bold and showy as grander specimens.

Magnolia Burgundy Star

‘Burgundy Star’ has yet to prove itself overseas. Being three quarter M. liliiflora nigra, the hope is that it may prove to be hardier in colder climates. The original plant in our carpark is exceptional –  fastigiate in its growth which is to its credit as a driveway or courtyard specimen, with a mass of good-sized, red, starry blooms over a long period of time. Only time will tell if this translates to other climates and locations.

Magnolia Felix Jury

Magnolia Felix Jury

So far, ‘Felix Jury’ is the stand-out performer of Mark’s selections. He named it for his father because it was what Felix had been trying to get to – a rich-coloured, large-flowered cup and saucer bloom with a long season. It is a source of pleasure to us that Felix was still alive to see the first blooms. On the first young plants, we described it as rich pink, but with age and maturity, the blooms have deepened to red in our climate and this is a specimen magnolia that just gets better with age and size. We have been delighted to see specimen plants well established in the UK, particularly at Wisley and also The Garden House in Devon. While we haven’t seen those plants in bloom, we are assured they are impressive, though probably more pink than red.

 

Magnolia Honey Tulip

Mark’s latest release is ‘Honey Tulip’, his best yellow cultivar so far. Again the flower shows excellent heavy texture in the petals, unlike the softer texture we see in the American yellow varieties we grow here. The form is different with a solid cup and the colour does not fade out as the season progresses. We are also pleased with the generous bud set we see on the plants here and it does not look as if it will ever get as large as some of the yellows. It is still early days – ask us in another twenty years how we rate it.

The ultimate goal would be to get to a pure yellow cup and saucer bloom of ‘Iolanthe’ or ‘Felix Jury’ size and splendour, along with the performance characteristics of those two cultivars but that is still a long way off and may not be attained in Mark’s lifetime. The pure red magnolia is closer. The deciduous magnolia programme is ongoing here.

The property is planted out in seedlings

The evergreen magnolias are a separate thread. We are with the Chinese – it is much easier to continue to refer to these as michelias and differentiate them from the better known grandifloras. Mark became interested in these 20 years ago and they are very much a work in progress. When he started, there were only a small number of species to work with and even fewer hybrids but he wondered whether he could extend the colour range and the habit of growth to get more garden-friendly options. In the time since, there has been an explosion of new species collected, particularly in China and Vietnam but New Zealand’s borders are now closed to new plants and he has had to rely on the original species he has access to – particularly M. figo, M. doltsopa, M. maudiae and M. laevifolia (formerly known as Michelia yunnanensis). He is not overly worried about this situation because most of the recent discoveries have been tropical and he is keen to increase hardiness overall, not to decrease it by introducing tropical genes. He had already decided that M. champaca and M. x ‘Alba’ – both of which we have here – were blind alleys when it came to his breeding programme.

Fairy Magnolia White

Most of the hardier species are white or cream flowered but the advantage in terms of colour has come through the most common form of M. figo in New Zealand being more colourful than those we have seen in other countries. Our form includes yellow and purple and that has extended the colour range in the hybrids.

Fairy Magnolia Blush

Michelias have a much quicker turnaround than deciduous magnolias and the number of hybrids here already greatly exceeds the number of the latter. A number of the hybrids show exciting promise in colour and flower size and are certainly extending the range. But the selection criteria includes several critical new factors. The hybrids must not set too much seed, they must make foliage growth down the stems and not just on the tips and they must not show the tendency of some michelias to defoliate either at flowering time or in wet spring seasons. Even more problematic are the issues of fragrance and ease of propagation from cutting. There is frequent disappointment. Mark oft bemoans the fact that he can cross two of the most fragrant of michelias and the offspring lack discernible scent. And the best coloured michelias have so far failed the propagation test. He is also after clean colours. With purple and yellow being the available colour genes, there is a disappointing number of murky coloured offspring which are rejected out of hand. There is a long way to go yet and the downstream crosses are getting ever more complex although he continues to work with the same narrow, original species base.

Moving large Fairy Magnolia Whites into the new garden where the plan is two pleached rows

The upshot of this is that only three cultivars have been released to date and none of these show the exciting colour breaks. It is heartening, however, that these three are showing more hardiness than expected, considering the use of two somewhat tender species in M. figo and M. doltsopa. These cultivars are being marketed internationally by our agents, Anthony Tesselaar Plants, under the Fairy Magnolia® branding. ‘Fairy Magnolia Pink’ is a foggii x laevifolia hybrid and brought indubitably pink tones into the range. It is floriferous over a long period of time and particularly good as a clipped specimen. Our row of five clipped lollipops are a real feature and easy to maintain at a set size with an annual hard spring prune and a light autumn trim. On the downside, the foliage is a little more olive green than we would like.

Fairy Magnolia Cream

The selection released as ‘Fairy Magnolia Cream’ is from similar breeding lines and has beautiful flower form, excellent fragrance and foliage in a cleaner hue of green. ‘Fairy Magnolia White’ is different breeding, bringing in more M. doltsopa and is therefore larger growing but with correspondingly larger blooms, also fragrant. We doubt that it is as hardy as the other two and see it more as an improved, garden-friendly version of the M. doltsopa parent. In recent times, we have planted a double avenue of ‘Fairy Magnolia White’ with a view to pleaching them and we have been pleased with how well this cultivar is responding to clipping and training.

A collection of blooms, showing the range in size and colour

The breeding programme will continue. There is a long way to go yet, although really what Mark would like is for one of our children to come home and take it into the next generation. With all three of our human offspring living overseas, this is one aspect of the breeding programme that is not looking hopeful.

Fairy Magnolia White

Apollo (probably liliiflora nigra hybrid x ‘Lanarth’, bred by Felix Jury) Released 1990

Athene (lennei alba x ‘Mark Jury’, bred by Felix Jury) 1988

Atlas (lennei x ‘Mark Jury’, bred by Felix Jury) 1989

Black Tulip (‘Vulcan’ x, bred by Mark Jury) 1998

Burgundy Star™ (liliiflora nigra x ‘Vulcan’, bred by Mark Jury) 2006

Fairy Magnolia Blush (M. laevifolia x foggii hybrid, bred by Mark Jury) 2008

Fairy Magnolia Cream (M. laevifolia x foggii hybrid, bred by Mark Jury) 2013

Fairy Magnolia white (M. laevifolia x doltsopa, bred by Mark Jury) 2013

Felix Jury (‘Atlas’ x ‘Vulcan’, bred by Mark Jury) 2000

Honey Tulip™ (‘Yellow Bird’ x ‘Iolanthe’, bred by Mark Jury) 2013

Iolanthe (lennei x ‘Mark Jury’, bred by Felix Jury) 1970s

Lotus (lennei alba x ‘Mark Jury’, bred by Felix Jury) 1988

Milky Way (lennei alba x ‘Mark Jury’, bred by Felix Jury) 1988

Serene (liliflora x ‘Mark Jury’, bred by Felix Jury) 1970s

Vulcan™ (liliiflora hybrid x ‘Lanarth’, bred by Felix Jury) 1989

Fairy Magnolia Blush – the original stock plants, now lollipops

An award!

IMG_8113

I was going to head this “We Won!”. That would, of course, have been using “we” in the royal sense for I had nothing to do with developing this new cultivar, Daphne Perfume Princess – all credit belongs to Mark. But yes, the Australians do like it and it has been given the Plant of the Year Award from the Nursery and Garden Industry. It is easy to be self-deprecating, cynical even. But awards and recognition are pretty hard won and it was gratifying to receive this trophy.

We arrived home from China on March 4 to find the first buds opening on Perfume Princess in the garden. We know from previous experience that it will also have the latest season blooms of any daphne we grow. Mark is a cautious man but he is quietly confident about this plant.

IMG_4226

IMG_8116While on trophies, how can I not share the Dali camellia medal we brought home from the International Camellia Congress? There is no personal recognition attached to this medal. All overseas attendees were given one. This meant, of course, that we had two. As they are relatively substantial and heavy, we re-homed the second one and only carried one back.

IMG_8117Bear with, bear with on the slow reveal.

IMG_8118It is quite remarkable. And quite large.

Petal Pushers – the Jury Michelias

 

Mark Jury standing on a carpet of fallen scented petals, surveying one of his early shelter belts planted with michelia hybrids

Mark Jury standing on a carpet of fallen scented petals, surveying an early shelter belts planted with michelia hybrids

All michelias are magnolias but not all magnolias are michelias. We have always known them as very close relatives to magnolias but they sat in a group of their own. Now there has been some international reassignment after DNA testing and they have become magnolias, which has led to some confusing name changes. In common usage, they are still often referred to michelias and we are a bit betwixt and between on names.

Until very recent times, there weren’t many different michelias in New Zealand. Doltsopa (the best known cultivar being named ‘Silver Cloud’) and figo (common name of port wine magnolia) have been here for a while. It was an early cross between these two by the late Oswald Blumhardt that gave us ‘Mixed Up Miss’ and ‘Bubbles’.

Interest started to grow when yunnanensis was brought in some twenty years ago. It has spawned a gazillion named selections because it sets seed readily, but just to confuse you, it is now correctly referred to as Magnolia laevifolia. There are a few other species which are not widely available, including maudiae, and some obscure ones that are of interest to collectors only. But our borders closed to new introductions so there are a number of recent discoveries in Asia that we don’t have here. Yes, new plants are still being discovered in this world of ours but we can only look at them from afar with our bio-security rules.

Fairy Magnolia White

Fairy Magnolia White

Mark started hybridising them here back in the 1990s. He figured there was room to improve on them as garden plants. Figo’s flowers are a bit insignificant and the foliage tends to go yellow in full sun. ‘Silver Cloud’ has a wonderful fragrance but the flowers are very floppy and lack good form. It also grows too large for many town gardens and it can defoliate – dropping all its leaves – after flowering. Laevifola (yunnanensis) can defoliate too, in spring conditions which are wet and cold. These are evergreen plants so defoliation is not a great look. ‘Bubbles’ and ‘Mixed Up Miss’ look great as juvenile plants but are pretty ordinary when they get bigger and older. Mark could see possibilities.

September and October are exciting months for us as the michelias bloom. We live and breathe michelias and magnolias at this time of the year. There are six hundred new michelia seedlings ready to flower this spring alone, part of a long term breeding programme. Out of the thousands he has raised, only three have been named and released so far.

Fairy Magnolia Blush

Fairy Magnolia Blush

There is a long way to go yet but some directions are emerging. Despite the vast majority of michelias being basically white, he has reached reds, purples and deep pinks and is working on deepening the pale yellows to get stronger colour. Along the way there are an awful lot of murky colour combinations that get the chop. There is a big range of flower form, foliage and growth habits. Perfume can be an issue when two of the most fragrant species spawn offspring with no scent at all. Bringing together all the different elements to get a new plant is an absorbing and time consuming occupation.

Along the way we have also learned that michelias are very tolerant of cutting and clipping and sprout again from bare wood. The row of lollipop Fairy Magnolia Blush at our entrance has been clipped and shaped over ten years now and we can keep it to the size we want by trimming just twice a year. They make excellent hedges and some of our roadside shelter belts are a feast of flower and fragrance at this time.

The sustainable wood lot

The sustainable wood lot

Regrowth

Regrowth

An unexpected bonus has been the sustainable woodlot. Because we heat our large house entirely with wood, we burn through a prodigious amount every winter. Mark had been thinking along the lines of establishing a sustainable woodlot for the future that we could harvest on a rotational basis. I even sourced a book on the very topic. But lo, he realised a few years ago that his reject michelia seedlings already filled that very niche, doing dual duty as winter feed for our very small herd of beefies that we keep to eat the paddock grass. I say very small herd – there are only four at the moment. Cut off close to the base, the plants soon shoot away again with long straight whips that could be used as poles or left to grow for firewood. Mark drags the branches into an adjacent paddock where the cattle enthusiastically eat the foliage. He then gathers the remaining trunks to cut up for next season’s firewood. It seems a good multi-purpose use of a plant breeding programme.

Fairy Magnolia Cream

Fairy Magnolia Cream

Mark’s three michelia selections to date are sold under the Fairy Magnolia brand and are widely available in New Zealand garden centres and in some overseas countries. Blush is a soft pink, Cream is very fragrant and grows in a similar, compact manner to Blush. White is a larger grower and the first in the season to flower. Mark has always seen it as a garden-friendly alternative to “Silver Cloud” with good fragrance and beautiful flower form.

First published in the September issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

Lollipop Fairy Magnolia Blush at our entranceway. The smaller michelia to the left is an unnamed figo hybrid with masses of creamy yellow flowers.

Lollipop Fairy Magnolia Blush at our entranceway. The smaller michelia to the left is an unnamed figo hybrid with masses of creamy yellow flowers.

All the reds

Magnolia 'Felix Jury'

Magnolia ‘Felix Jury’

August belongs to the red magnolias here. They start flowering in July for us but peak this month with September leaning more to the pinks, whites and yellows. While others may delight in one or two red magnolias, we get them en masse. For every named variety, there are many sister seedlings that will never be released but keep on growing and flowering each year. Magnolia trees just get bigger and better as the years go by so the annual display keeps on getting more spectacular.

Magnolia liliiflora 'Nigra'

Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’

When Felix Jury, transferred the pollen of Magnolia ‘Lanarth’ onto Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’ in the early 1960s, I doubt very much that he contemplated a significant breakthrough in the international world of magnolias which would bring fame – though not fortune. He just wanted to see if he could get to large red flowers. Lanarth (technically M. campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’) has lovely flower form and at its best is a magnificent purple on a handsome tree. M. liliiflora ‘Nigra’ can have good red colour but with small flowers on a shrubby, spreading plant, it is not showy.

Magnolia 'Vulcan'

Magnolia ‘Vulcan’

The best of the progeny he named Magnolia ‘Vulcan’ and for the next decades, it stood proudly on its own as a major step along the way to red magnolias. Sure, it is not a pure red and the later season flowers fade out to a somewhat murky purple. There is always room for improvement but Felix laid the foundations for what is following now and he showed that a determined, self-taught, hobby plantsman at the bottom of the world could make a major contribution to the international magnolia scene.

Magnolia 'Black Tulip'

Magnolia ‘Black Tulip’

Magnolia 'Burgundy Star'

Magnolia ‘Burgundy Star’

It is perhaps not widely recognised in this country that New Zealand has led the way with red magnolias Our spring display is arguably the best in the world. For reasons yet to be determined, we get deeper and stronger colours here, certainly than in the UK and Europe. There, they are accustomed to white, pink and now yellow magnolias, but the impact of the red types that are now relatively common here never fails to stun international visitors who come in spring. Felix Jury paved the way with Vulcan. His youngest son, Mark – the man to whom I have been married for more decades than we like to tally – continued building on this foundation, as has fellow Taranaki magnolia breeder, Vance Hooper.

Mark’s quest is a pure red magnolia, losing the purple tones that dog the earlier hybrids. He is getting very close – not quite there yet, but close enough to think that it is achievable. Like his father before him, Mark prefers large flowers with solid colour both inside and outside the petals (technically tepals).

Magnolia 'Genie'

Magnolia ‘Genie’

Vance Hooper is going down a slightly different track and shows a liking for bicoloured flowers. In magnolias this often means a paler inner petal. He is also actively selecting for smaller growing trees which are floriferous over a long period of time, often with smaller flowers. His best known red cultivar to date is Magnolia Genie but he too has a whole range of red seedlings under observation and a number of other named varieties already released.

Felix named one purple – Apollo – and one into the red tones, Vulcan. Mark has named only three reds so far – Black Tulip, Burgundy Star and Felix Jury. Of these, Burgundy Star is arguably the reddest but it is the one he named for his father that brings us greatest pleasure. As a juvenile plant, it started off with OTT giant pink blooms but as it matured, the colour deepened and we now get enormous red flowers – though I admit they fade out to pink. This magnolia represents what Felix himself was trying to get to – a rich coloured, very large bloom of the Iolanthe-type.

It is a source of quiet satisfaction to us that Felix lived long enough to see his son achieve this outcome and it was for this reason that Mark named it for his father. We were most gratified to learn that it has been given an Award of Garden Merit by Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society.

I have never forgotten the customer who came in to buy a magnolia some years ago. She didn’t want a red one, was sick of seeing them – too common, she declared. No, she wanted a white one. I think I remained steadfastly polite but as our forest of colour blooms each August, I rememer her blissful ignorance.

First published in the August issue of New Zealand Gardener.

'Lanarth" is in full flower and looking particularly fine this week

‘Lanarth” is in full flower and looking particularly fine this week

“The Holy Grail of horticulture”

Daphne Perfume Princess

Daphne Perfume Princess

As a people, we New Zealanders tend to be a little more reserved than our Australian neighbours across the Tasman. So I post this link to their prime time Channel 9 last night with a slight sense of unseemly boasting. But to have somebody of the stature of Don Burke declaring Mark’s Daphne Perfume Princess to be the Holy Grail of horticulture and the best new plant to be released in Australia in the last 50 years is high praise indeed.

This knight...

This knight…

We knew the story was going to air. We had been sent photos – Don donning a knight’s costume in a theatrical take on the search for the Holy Grail. Indeed, we had raised our eyebrows at Channel 9 wardrobe department’s selection of a knight’s costume owing to the fact that we think it was King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table who were in search of the Holy Grail, not so much the Templar Knights of the Christian crusades…. But no matter, Don carried it off with panache.

Mark’s comment is that the ultimate challenge for a plant breeder is to take a really well known, common plant and to make it better. We hope he has achieved this with Daphne Perfume Princess. Others certainly think so.