The greatest show of Spring
Magnolias large and small are preparing to burst into life with their annual display – and there’s a variety for most gardens
This time last year my plant of the week on this page was Magnolia “Leonard Messel”, a delightful deciduous variety with beautiful and fragrant sugar pink petals.
Then earlier this year a lunch guest, a great old dame with a renowned interest in snooping through her hosts’ gardens, brought me this shrub as a gift.
I have been checking every day recently with excitement to see when the furry pink buds will burst into flower.
When a heavy frost is predicted, I put it in a sheltered position. And when it does blossom it will always remind me of my guest and that lovely Sunday lunch.
It’s a sign that spring is well in its stride when these beautiful trees and shrubs put on their annual floral display.
A mature magnolia in full bloom is a wondrous sight. Some of the most spectacular ones can be far too big for the average garden – for example the champion magnolia tree “Diva” at Westonbirt Arboretum in Tetbury, Glos, has rich pink flowers and reaches 24 metres into the sky.
But there are plenty of varieties, from shrubs to small trees, that will make a beautiful focal point in your garden every spring.
The aforementioned “Leonard Messel” is one such variety with the added benefit that it doesn’t mind a clay soil and is quite frost resistant.
That can be a problem with magnolias – a hard frost can damage the buds and they will be blackened.
So it is important to plant in the best spot. This will be in a sheltered position away from cold, drying winds.
While many prefer neutral to acid soil, the quality of the soil is equally important – rich fertile moist soil is best.
You don’t want them to dry out in summer. Magnolias are shallow rooting so a good mulch once a year will help.
Pruning should not be necessary once you have chosen wisely and there is sufficient space for the plant to develop. They will do fine in dappled shade but for maximum flowering, full sunshine is the best.
Magnolia stellata is probably the most widely planted variety in smaller gardens – it has pure white scented flowers with long petals.
It will grow slowly to about three metres in height. “Jane Platt” is a lovely pink version of this.
For a deeper pink, M. liliiflora “Nigra” is a deservedly popular choice – dark pink tulip-shaped flowers will delight in June and this will grow to around three metres as well.
Magnolia soulangeana or the saucer magnolias are very popular. One of the more compact varieties is Lennei, reaching about six metres at maturity. Goblet shaped flowers which are purple on the outside and white inside make a stunning bicolour display on bare branches in spring.
Or what about a yellow magnolia? “Sunsation’” has really big yellow flowers with a pink blush at the base.
As it flowers a little later in spring it runs less risk from frost damage so it’s a good choice for harsher climes.
The other magnolia I have is M. tripetala. This is also known as the umbrella tree which is so called because of its large leaves which are around a foot or more in length.
It’s still only a few years old in my garden and yet to flower – but that may be a good thing as the white flowers are amongst the only magnolia flowers which are said to have a bad odour.
But since I am growing it to enjoy the foliage I’m not too concerned!