On Gardening: Saucer magnolias dazzle the spring landscape

March 16, 2015

The spring magnolias offer exquisite beauty and tantalizing fragrance.

The winter has been fickle in my area of coastal Georgia, but the cool season magnolias have still been breathtakingly beautiful. The common names like saucer magnolia, tulip magnolia and Japanese magnolia all seem to fit this incredible cross originally credited to one of Napoleonís retired soldiers.

Botanically speaking we refer to them as Magnolia x soulangeana, and the accepted common name is Chinese magnolia. The hybrids today, however, will stump even the best of horticulturists and taxonomists but donít let that stop you from including this dazzling display as your opening curtain call for spring. Even if freezes knock the blooms back from time to time, this small tree is a must have in the landscape.

The trees are the perfect size for the urban landscape, and yet the flowers are monolithic when compared to cherries, apricots and redbuds. Three-gallon and larger plants are arriving at our garden centers now and will no doubt be making an appearance at yours as well as spring moves north. Most have an enormous cold-hardiness range from zones 4 through 9, meaning much of the country can relish in their beauty. But you have to plant one first.

If you look at the Internet and see the number of varieties in the marketplace, you will be stunned. I assure you, you will not find this many selections at your garden center. You will find a good number, however, and now is the time to start shopping. Visit those certified nurserymen in your area who specialize in great woody ornamentals. When you decide to plant, choose a site that is fertile, well-drained, moist and ideally offers wind protection.

Dig the hole three to five times as wide as the root ball, but no deeper. The top of the root ball should be even with the soil profile. You may ask yourself why we always suggest the hole be wide. This allows for the easiest and quickest root-expansion and thus good establishment in your landscape.

If by some chance it takes you a while to locate that perfect specimen and you have to plant in late spring to early summer, donít fret. When you plant, form a 4-inch berm outside the root ball area. This berm should be able to hold 5 gallons of water. The berm makes it easy to get needed water to the root ball at a time when Mother Nature may not be so generous. Remove the berm after the first year.

The height of these magnolias varies with the cultivar and will range from 15 to 30 feet. Space them 15 to 20 feet apart or from other spring-blooming trees. Their flowers border on the spectacular with color, shape, size and tantalizing fragrance. The large, fuzzy buds are also unique in the winter garden and can be used as an accent or specimen.

The early spring or late winter garden can truly look like a painting if you include a saucer or Chinese magnolia, with other bloomers like Taiwan cherry, camellias, forsythia, and early blooming narcissus. With the addition of plants like these, our spring will seem to be extended as the azaleas, rhododendrons, dogwoods and redbuds quickly follow.

Ann, a US Arboretum selection, and Alexandrina are two of the most popular purple varieties, but color varies and it is sometimes best to buy in bloom to select the color you want. Keep your eyes also open for Blazing Beauty a fairly new deep purple-pink selection and the heirloom Brozzoni that originated in 1873 featuring large white blooms with a blush of purple.

By all means also include the star magnolia, Magnolia stellate, in with this group. We have a couple of young trees called Royal Star near our water garden and they have been stunning. They are equally cold hardy and yield the most pristine white star shaped blossom on a large shrub to small rounded tree. The Magnolia stellata has also been used as a parent in many hybrids, including the incredible Loebner magnolia, Magnolia x loebneri.

Our weather pattern may continue to be fickle this year, but I can assure you spring is coming. This means you will have ample opportunity to plant one of these terrific magnolias.



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