– Posted in: Plant info, What's up/blooming

Magnolia 'Athene'

A strong argument for calling Magnolias Tulip Trees

I grew up with a large Southern Magnolia in a small backyard. Its great size dominated the space, smothering the ground below and adjacent plants with massive quantities of leathery leaves and sucking up all available moisture with large surface roots. I was unknowing of its survival tactics and found its main purpose, from a child’s viewpoint, was scaffolding, aiding my climbs and elevating me beyond the neighboring houses.

I remained oblivious of the Magnolias surrounding me until I went to an exhibit of collected works from the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Along with the iconic nature-inspired lamps, vases, and other decorative pieces, were two sets of large windows. The wisteria panels were breath taking, combining delicate colors and impeccable composition into master works of astonishing beauty. But it was the Magnolia windows that have been with me since. Created for Laurelton Hall, Tiffany’s home in Oyster Bay, New York, they embodied the simplicity and spirit of the trees: white blossoms supported by thick leaded stems and branches, traced onto a sky of clear glass. I never expected art to profoundly affect me but it did. (A current exhibition of Tiffany art and objects from Laurelton Hall is at the Met in New York through May 20.)

When the calendar shifts into March and April, I can’t help but think of deciduous Magnolias. Whites, pinks, creams, maroons, yellows, and rose, they provide an aerial counterpoint to the bulbs growing below them. Most common are the myriad varieties of Saucer Magnolias, M. x-soulangeana, but if you have a chance to see one their parents, M. denudata, don’t miss it. An enchanting vision of pristine elegance, it has an appealing grace often lacking in its progeny. M. campbelli is a big tree and also has the largest flowers, 18 inches or more. It’s worth visiting warmer areas of the country to see them, as they are too tender for here.

Cold climates can also grow Magnolias. The smallest is Star Magnolia, M. stellata, often seen as a multi-stemmed shrub. Flowering when young, its flowers with strappy tepals densely cover the plant, I’m guessing to overcompensate for its small size. M. kobus is more tree-like, with white flowers in spring. It is slow to flower, sometimes taking ten or more years, and is not often grown.

M. x-loebneri is the superb hybrid between stellata and kobus and is highly recommended. Flowering when young, it combines the flower form of stellata and the size of kobus into a garden enhancing small tree. Common varieties are ‘Leonard Messel’ – pink flowers, and ‘Merrill’ – white flowers. My ‘Merrill’ anchors a small border and is always a pleasure when blooming and afterwards.

Full sun and even moisture are their main requirements but placement is important too. Nothing looks worse than a Magnolia clipped into an unnatural form or trying to maintain a large tree in a location that’s too small. Fragrance has always been a hallmark of Magnolias, with each species and variety contributing its unique flavor. Tropical species of Magnolias and their near relative Michelias can be suffocatingly powerful when in bloom.

Magnolias are of ancient lineage and are considered one of the earliest flowering plants. I once visited a Primitive Garden consisting of plants from earlier days. The plantings featured Magnolias that had been underplanted with ferns and cycads with horsetails (equisetum) and Gunneras added for contrast. Anchored by Ginkgos, the garden made for a thought-provoking display.

There is also a Magnolia Society that includes a complete cultivar and description list.

About the Author

I started in 1977 growing plants at wholesale nurseries and a wholesale seed company in California. In 1992 I started volunteering (in the nursery, of course!) at Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco where I met my wife. My wife is originally from upstate and we moved here in 2002. It took at least two years of living here for me to fully understand our property and to take advantage and work with our microclimate. Although growing zone maps show us to be in 5, we are realistically a 4b. I am inordinately proud, in a smarmy kind of way, of how many of the plants we brought with us have thrived. Coming from a zone 9 has been quite an adjustment for all of us. But we are thriving and enjoy the beauty and what the land gives us everyday. USDA Hardiness Zone: 4b/5a Location: rural; Central Leatherstocking near Cooperstown, New York Geographic type: riverine valley Soil type: Chenango alluvial – shallow clay and highly stony Experience level: 28 years professionally wholesale and retail, no longer in the business Particular interests: native plants and ecosystems, flowering and berry producing shrubs, home-grown foods, maples, birches, willows, ornamental grasses, filipendulas, iris, ligularias, persicarias, asclepias, artemisia, asters, arisaemas, hardy geraniums, euphorbias, eupatoriums, origanums, lysimachias, eryngiums, lilies, and visiting nurseries

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

~Albert Camus in Albert Camus quotations

Comments on this entry are closed.

DawnD April 15, 2008, 3:04 pm

I want to know more about the “Primitive Garden”. That idea intrigues me.

LisaZ April 5, 2007, 12:55 pm

Hi Craig, I enjoyed your magnolia essay …I’ve always loved them growing up in California but never knew which ones (if any) would do well here in our climate…I’m excited to try the “Leonard Messel” variety or the “Merril” out in the garden..also, thanks for the cultural tip as well.. it would be great to get down to the Met and see the Tiffany show, I bet it would be beautiful….take care, Lisa

Ki April 4, 2007, 8:18 pm

For the best looking magnolia I think the M. denudata you mentioned may take the prize. I tried to plant one several years ago but the graft died probably because it was planted in too wet a ground. The graft stock with enormous leaves was transplanted and is still growing but hasn’t flowered so remains a mystery. Wonderful post. I enjoyed reading it v. much.

ruralway April 4, 2007, 10:55 am

I really enjoy your writing. The way you tie different things together ( Like Magnolias and Tiffany) is fresh and always interesting. I notice in your bio that one of your interests is ‘home grown food’-I’m curious to know what you grow!
I also see that you spent 28 years in the nursery business but no longer work in it-wondered why.

Apple April 4, 2007, 10:25 am

There is a large magnolia on my route that I look forward to very spring. I have no idea what type it is but it is beautiful. I tried one here in 2004 and it didn’t make it. I may try another this year as I have always wanted one.

LostRoses April 3, 2007, 10:45 pm

I saw my first magnolia tree in bloom here a couple of weeks ago. I never knew they were hardy in Colorado and now that I know, I’m wondering where they all are! Who wouldn’t want one of those beauties?

Jenn April 3, 2007, 11:27 am

As a kid in Detroit, we called Magnolias Tulip Trees.

I never saw an actual Tulip tree in bloom until a few years ago!

(interesting mix of tulip tree and magnolia on the Google search – lots of folks calling the magnolia a tulip)

Genie April 3, 2007, 9:13 am

My parents’ old house in Virginia had the most gorgeous magnolia tree in the yard — it had lovely blossoms. Apparently, sometime around when I was born, the tree was struck by lightning and was, essentially, destroyed to the ground. It grew back, though, stronger than ever.

Thanks for the informative post — I never really investigated all the different varieties. And the photo is really lovely.