Plant pro­file: mag­no­lias

Yel­low-coloured mag­no­lias are less com­mon than their pink cousins and come in shades from pale apri­cot to rich but­ter

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS JIM GAR­DINER PHO­TO­GRAPHS CLIVE NI­CHOLS

Mag­no­lia ex­pert Jim Gar­diner se­lects 12 of the best yel­lowflow­ered mag­no­lias

Walk­ing along many sub­ur­ban streets in March and April you will be wowed by the power of mag­no­lias seen in shades of pink and pur­ple as well as white. Al­most cer­tainly, th­ese will be Mag­no­lia x soulangeana the hy­brid cre­ated at the be­gin­ning of the 19th cen­tury by the French­man Éti­enne Soulange- Bodin. He crossed the yu­lan, Mag­no­lia de­nudata, with the mu-lan, Mag­no­lia lili­iflora.

Fast for­ward to the 1950s. A team of women in­clud­ing Eva­maria Sper­ber, Doris Stone and my friend Lola Ko­ert­ing were car­ry­ing out hy­bridi­s­a­tion pro­grammes at Brook­lyn Botanic Gar­den us­ing seed of the Amer­i­can Mag­no­lia acumi­nata with pollen from the two Asi­atic species used by Soulange-Bodin. They wanted to use their na­tive species be­cause it has yel­low flow­ers (also green and blue), is ex­cep­tion­ally hardy, tol­er­ant of many soil types and has a vari­able habit from a large shrub to a tree.

Mag­no­lia ‘El­iz­a­beth’ (hy­brid with M. de­nudata) is prob­a­bly the best known hy­brid raised by Brook­lyn Botanic Gar­den and named in 1978. It’s one of the first yel­low mag­no­lias to flower in April with soft, prim­roseyel­low flow­ers that ap­pear be­fore the fo­liage. Although ini­tially up­right in habit, it will ul­ti­mately de­velop into a small, round-headed tree.

The first Mag­no­lia x brook­ly­nen­sis ( hy­brid with M. lili­iflora) was ‘ Eva­maria’, which was named in 1968. Its tulip- shaped flow­ers are a suf­fu­sion of rose with yel­low and green run­ning though the tepals. This flow­ers be­fore the leaves open while M. x brook­ly­nen­sis ‘Yel­low Bird’ flow­ers a lot later with bright-yel­low flow­ers that open at the same time as the leaves in late April or early May. Un­ex­pected re­sults have been seen when M. x brook­ly­nen­sis has been used as a seed par­ent. One such mag­no­lia is ‘Day­break’. Rather than hav­ing yel­low flow­ers, ‘Day­break’ has flow­ers that are rose pink in colour and, un­like some mag­no­lias, are fra­grant. Once they have opened fully, the flow­ers re­veal a hint of green, mak­ing it one of the most eye catch­ing and un­mis­tak­able of the mag­no­lias that flower dur­ing late April and May. The fact that it grows into a small, colum­nar tree makes it one of the most ap­peal­ing mag­no­lias for a smaller gar­den too. At a time when gar­dens seem to be get­ting smaller, a nar­row, up­right habit is a great trait to see in trees. An­other good cul­ti­var ex­hibit­ing this qual­ity is ‘Judy Zuk’, which is named af­ter a for­mer pres­i­dent of Brook­lyn Botanic Gar­den. Its tulip-shaped flow­ers are apri­cot in colour, striped rose on the out­side and flower in May along with the fo­liage.

Sev­eral good yel­lows that are ex­tremely hardy have been in­tro­duced by plant breeder Phil Sav­age from his home in Michi­gan. One of his in­tro­duc­tions, ‘But­ter­flies’, is one of the first to flower in March, while ‘Gold Star’, with star-shaped, cream-coloured flow­ers, and ‘Yel­low Lantern’, with tulip-shaped, lemon-yel­low flow­ers, start flow­er­ing in late March or early April. Th­ese early mag­no­lias work well when planted with springflow­er­ing bulbs, es­pe­cially scil­las, chion­o­doxas and mus­caris, but dwarf nar­cissi can also be used to great ef­fect. Cy­cla­men hed­er­i­folium with its mar­bled leaves also works well adding six months of in­ter­est from Septem­ber when their flow­ers are seen. Prim­roses too add in­ter­est es­pe­cially when seen in large drifts, while pa­tio clema­tis grown as ground­cover will ex­tend in­ter­est through­out the sum­mer months.

Mag­no­lias of all per­sua­sions like a mois­ture-re­ten­tive soil re­gard­less of whether it’s acid or slightly al­ka­line. Most can be grown in full sun or part shade and are sur­pris­ingly tol­er­ant of ex­po­sure. Those early flow­er­ing M. x soulangeana so of­ten seen on sub­ur­ban streets are gen­er­ally best suited to sub­ur­bia, which tends to be a de­gree or two warmer than the sur­round­ing coun­try­side, but the yel­lows, which flower a few weeks later, are able to adapt to a wider range of cli­mates mak­ing them even more im­pres­sive.

Many of the best yel­low-flow­ered mag­no­lias are from hy­brids raised at Brook­lyn Botanic Gar­den. Pos­si­bly the best-known of th­ese is Mag­no­lia ‘El­iz­a­beth’ shown here (see page 64).

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