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