The cups that cheer
Photographed at RHS Wisley Gardens, Surrey
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