The cups that cheer

Pho­tographed at RHS Wis­ley Gar­dens, Sur­rey

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Clive Ni­chols

Yel­low-flow­ered mag­no­lias have long at­tracted the plant con­nois­seur, but these al­lur­ing trees de­serve more wide­spread plant­ing, ar­gues Mark Grif­fiths

Yel­low-flow­ered mag­no­lias have long been the quest of the con­nois­seur, but, with a range of smaller, re­li­able cul­ti­vars now be­ing of­fered by spe­cial­ist nurs­eries, these al­lur­ing trees de­serve more wide­spread plant­ing, re­ports Mark Grif­fiths

On my first visit to Long­wood Gar­dens, Penn­syl­va­nia, USA, I was given a tour by its then cu­ra­tor, Rick Darke. ‘Any ideas?’ he asked, point­ing to a grand old tree that stood in the dis­tance. I told him I hadn’t a clue and my­self that it might be a na­tive oak, such was its splen­dour. I knew oth­er­wise once I’d ap­proached it and glimpsed the flam­beaux of cool, creamy yel­low that flick­ered among its broad new leaves. It was Mag­no­lia acumi­nata.

Rick ex­plained that this spec­i­men had been dis­cov­ered in South Carolina in 1788 by An­dré Michaux, pioneer­ing ex­plorer of north Amer­i­can flora. From Michaux, it had gone to two brothers, Sa­muel and Joshua Peirce, who in­cluded it in an ar­bore­tum that they be­gan plant­ing on their farm­land in 1798. Peirce’s Park, as this plan­ta­tion be­came known, was derelict by 1906 and about to be felled when the busi­ness mag­nate Pierre S. du Pont bought and con­served it.

On the land around this his­toric nu­cleus, he pur­sued his own horticultural vi­sion. The re­sult was Long­wood, which du Pont later en­dowed for the ben­e­fit of the pub­lic. Hav­ing flour­ished there from the be­gin­ning, the mag­no­lia was the liv­ing foun­da­tion stone of what be­came, and re­mains, one of the world’s great­est gar­dens. At 100ft tall, it’s the largest known

M. acumi­nata in the USA. Oth­ers come close, how­ever. This species is a gi­ant among mag­no­lias, often mak­ing a stately tree in its na­tive north Amer­ica. The flow­ers open be­tween April and June, with or just af­ter the leaves, and some­times give an au­tumn encore. They range from ivory to pale primrose and bright lemon, with outer seg­ments that are often green or bloomy grey.

In some vari­ants, their ex­te­ri­ors are suf­fused with shades of cyan—hence ‘blue mag­no­lia’, one of this species’ com­mon names (the other be­ing cu­cum­ber tree, from the shape and colour of its un­ripe fruit­ing bod­ies). In two cul­ti­vars se­lected for this trait, Blue Opal and Seiju, the flow­ers are re­spec­tively tinted Prus­sian blue and verdi­gris, both with yel­low in­te­ri­ors.

One might imag­ine that it’s for these strange hues that M. acumi­nata is prized, but no—it’s for the flow­ers’ carotenoid con­tent. This cock­tail of pig­ments gives them an in­nate yel­low­ness that’s true and trans­mis­si­ble even when masked by green or blue­grey. Among hardy Mag­no­lia species, only M. acumi­nata has this Mi­das touch. Over the past 70 years, hy­bridists have used it to pur­sue an ideal: smaller mag­no­lias with showier yel­low flow­ers that open be­fore the new leaves ex­pand.

The Brook­lyn Botanic Gar­den ini­ti­ated this quest and first saw suc­cess. In the 1940s, at what was then its Kitchawan Re­search Sta­tion in Westch­ester County, M. acumi­nata was crossed with M. lili­iflora ni­gra, a ro­bust Asian shrub with large, wine red-flushed blooms that are, as botanists say, pre­co­cious, mean­ing they open be­fore the fo­liage de­vel­ops.

Mag­no­lia seedlings take a good few years to flower and longer still to eval­u­ate. It wasn’t un­til the 1950s that the gar­den’s plant breeder, Eva­maria Sper­ber, be­gan to se­lect the best off­spring of M. x brook­ly­nen­sis, as this new hy­brid was styled. The first to be named was M. Eva­maria, whose sump­tu­ous flow­ers com­bine naples yel­low, peach and dusty rose.

With her next ex­per­i­ment, Dr Sper­ber struck gold. In the mid 1950s, she crossed M. acumi­nata with M. den

udata, the heav­enly yu­lan from China, whose flow­ers, white and light­bulb-shaped in bud, are borne on bare branches. The best plant among their off­spring was named M. El­iz­a­beth.

Since its in­tro­duc­tion in 1977, this cul­ti­var has be­come the most widely grown yel­low mag­no­lia and de­servedly so: its flights of but­ter­milk and soft cit­rine are sublime.

It be­comes large, its boughs as­cend­ing in a pyra­mi­dal crown. This makes for im­pos­ing multi-stemmed spec­i­mens, but also suits it to use as a bright and sym­met­ri­cal, cleartrunked stan­dard tree. A row of the lat­ter forms the glo­ri­ous cen­tre­piece of a Modernist de­sign at Worces­ter Col­lege, Ox­ford, and makes me won­der why we don’t see more such mag­no­lias in for­mal av­enues, hard land­scapes and towns.

Over the fol­low­ing two decades, Brook­lyn Botanic Gar­den made new crosses and is­sued fur­ther out­stand­ing cul­ti­vars. Two of the best are M. Lois (vig­or­ous, hardy, broadly up­right, and decked with cus­tard cups come April) and M. Yel­low Bird (gob­let­shaped blooms that sit, like plump ca­naries, among the fresh new leaves).

The gar­den had started a gold rush. Un­til the present cen­tury, it was mainly pur­sued in the USA and no­tably by two re­mark­able in­di­vid­u­als. In North Carolina, Au­gust Kehr achieved a prodi­gious out­put of crosses. He also raised seeds ob­tained from other grow­ers and se­lected cul­ti­vars. Of these, my favourite is M. Sun­dance, whose pale flow­ers are large, lu­mi­nous and lolling and, on warm days, lace the air with lemon fra­grance.

In Michi­gan, mean­while, the no-less pro­lific Phil Sav­age was at work. Three of his tri­umphs are es­pe­cially pop­u­lar. M. But­ter­flies swarms with musk-scented chal­ices in jon­quil. M. Yel­low Lan­tern shows the in­flu­ence of its par­ent M. x soulangeana in be­ing cold­proof, branch­ing low and broadly and hav­ing large and up­right vase-shaped flow­ers. These are limpid apri­cot in bud and like can­dle­light there­after. M. Gold Star is as tough as its par­ent,

M. stel­lata, and has sim­i­larly starry flow­ers, but these are hol­landaise rather than white and borne on a shrub that’s taller and more tree-like.

Lat­terly, the ex­cite­ment has moved away from Amer­ica. In New Zealand a few years ago, Mark Jury in­tro­duced his cre­ation M. Honey Tulip. It re­sem­bles his mas­ter­piece M. Black Tulip, but its gob­lets brim with mead in­stead of Mon­tepul­ciano. How­ever, the gold cru­cible de nos

jours is un­doubt­edly We­spelaar Ar­bore­tum in Bel­gium. Its founder and owner, vi­comte Philippe de Spoel­berch, has amassed yel­low cul­ti­vars and as­sessed them for North­ern Europe. He has also raised and se­lected his own—among them, some of the best.

These were de­vel­oped from new cross­ings that Kehr made just over a decade be­fore his death in 2001. Aware that he might not live to see the re­sults, he sent their un­tried seeds to We­spelaar in the early 1990s. With these pack­ages of prom­ise, M. de Spoel­berch worked pure alchemy, pro­duc­ing such cov­etable cul­ti­vars as M. Honey Flower (com­par­a­tively small, bowl-shaped flow­ers in bright sul­phur), M. Ba­nana Split (im­mense blooms that peel apart in floppy vanilla seg­ments dashed with pis­ta­chio and straw­berry) and M. But­ter­bowl (neat rounded blooms whose colour and sub­stance re­call marzi­pan brushed with cas­sis, but which smell of papaya).

‘The mag­no­lia was the liv­ing foun­da­tion stone of one of the world’s great­est gar­dens

‘It makes me won­der why we don’t see more such mag­no­lias in for­mal av­enues’

All per­form well in our cli­mate, flow­er­ing freely when young and mak­ing fine trees, given a decade or so of good cul­ti­va­tion. How­ever, Euro­pean Mag­no­lia afi­ciona­dos say that an­other We­spelaar in­tro­duc­tion, M. Daphne, is finer still, in­deed the best yel­low cul­ti­var of all. I’d agree: the con­trast be­tween its bril­liant chromeyel­low bea­cons and for­est-green new fo­liage is sheer ex­hil­a­ra­tion.

More­over, its mod­est height (to about 20ft) and shapely con­i­cal crown make M. Daphne ideal for smaller gar­dens and for prom­i­nent solo plac­ing else­where.

How­ever, let’s not for­get the species that made this bonanza pos­si­ble. Typ­i­cal M. acumi­nata is some­times dis­missed as not showy enough to war­rant the space it re­quires. Nonethe­less, it’s a mag­nif­i­cent beast to set loose in a wood or park­land, where its blooms, like those of its dis­tant cousin the tulip tree, re­pay cran­ing and peer­ing and its au­tumn fo­liage (clone and weather per­mit­ting) turns parch­ment and sepia.

More use­ful for gar­dens is the form na­tive to the south­ern USA, M.

acumi­nata var. sub­cor­data, which tends to be smaller and shrub­bier and to flower when younger. I’d rec­om­mend the se­lec­tion Miss Hon­ey­bee —com­pact, low-branch­ing and with brim­stone blooms.

De­spite be­ing the biggest of the lot, Long­wood’s great old tree is also var.

sub­cor­data. It has been prop­a­gated and re­leased un­der the cul­ti­var name Peirce’s Park, worth grow­ing not only as a piece of liv­ing his­tory, but also for its longevity, vigour and florif­er­ous­ness.

In all these mag­no­lias, re­li­ably warm springs can spur pre­co­cious bloom­ing and strengthen yel­low colour­ing. In our fickle cli­mate, they may ap­pear more bash­ful and wan than in Amer­ica or else­where. To which, add our af­flic­tion by that great en­emy to mag­no­lia flow­ers, the hard late frost. Be­ing British, how­ever, we scorn such dif­fi­cul­ties.

Im­por­tant and beau­ti­ful col­lec­tions of yel­low mag­no­lias can be seen at Wis­ley in Sur­rey, Hergest Croft in Here­ford­shire and Caer­hays in Corn­wall (Coun­try Life, March 8, 2017). On a smaller scale, they’re be­gin­ning to grace gar­dens na­tion­wide.

They need no more fuss than other hardy mag­no­lias: sun or dap­pled shade, soil that’s rich, moist and ideally (but not com­pul­so­rily) mildly acid to neu­tral and per­haps the shel­ter of nearby trees or walls when young. As for wor­ries about their per­for­mance in the UK, cer­tainly, in very rough springs, they can seem a tad lowen­ergy light­bulb, but, in bet­ter years, you’ll find their golden can­de­labra out­shine the sun.

Pre­ced­ing pages: Mag­no­lia x brook­ly­nen­sis Hat­tie Carthan com­mem­o­rates Brook­lyn’s tree saver and com­mu­nity ac­tivist. Above left: Bred by Au­gust Kehr of North Carolina, M. Honey Liz is a hy­brid cre­ated out of Miss Hon­ey­bee and El­iz­a­beth. Above right: Palest but­ter­milk and cit­rine­toned El­iz­a­beth is from a cross be­tween M. acumi­nata and M. de­nudata

Above left: M. Judy Zuk bears medium yel­low flow­ers over­laid with pink­ishor­ange hues. It’s a strongly fra­grant but com­plex cross re­sult­ing from M. acumi­nata, M. lili­iflora and M. stel­lata parent­age. Above: From the pro­lific Phil Sav­age of Michi­gan, musk-scented M. But­ter­flies is a tree of com­pact, pyra­mi­dal form

Top: The im­mense flow­ers of Mag­no­lia Ba­nana Split, ‘floppy vanilla seg­ments dashed with pis­ta­chio and straw­berry’. Above: Glo­ri­ously lemon-washed and hardy Mag­no­lia Gold Star

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