Magnolias are beloved by many, whether it is the striking appearance of a bare-branched magnolia breaking into flower at winters end when little else blooms, or the sheer impressiveness of a single Magnolia grandiflora blossom, the pure white contrasting with the rich green of the foliage. These are two of the most well-known images of magnolias, however there is a plethora of other forms not yet widely known or cultivated.
The magnolia family is one of the oldest groups of flowering plants, and has an interesting geographical distribution, with the majority of species found in east and southeast Asia, and further species found in North, Central, and South America. Southern China is a particularly diverse area, with both deciduous and evergreen species found in a wide array of microclimates.
These impressive and intriguing plants can be grown quite easily, and there are many unique varieties to choose from. The pleasure of growing magnolias can be enjoyed by anyone with a bit of outdoor space, be it only a balcony, and a few varieties can even be attempted indoors (Magnolia coco, a smaller evergreen variety). In a large garden, magnolias will grow into large and majestic trees; Magnolia grandiflora, one of the largest, grows to over 20 metres, with one of the largest recorded specimens coming in at 37 metres, in Mississippi. Don’t be put off though if you want to grow this stately tree – varieties such as ‘Little Gem’ grow to a much smaller size, approximately 4 metres height, and can even be grown in containers.
Magnolias, particularly deciduous species, prefer a temperate climate, and will not thrive in the hotter parts of Australia, and will need vigilant protection from summer heat. In general, magnolias prefer a site in full sun, for maximum leaf growth and flowering, however light shade is also tolerable, particularly if you live in a warm area. Soil should be moist yet well-drained, and preferably slightly acid, though neutral and slightly alkaline soils can be alright as well. Magnolias need a sheltered position, protected from winds, as the branches and flowers can be easily damaged. They benefit from a hefty layer of mulch to keep the roots cool, as they are shallow-rooted plants, thus they should also not be planted too deeply in the soil.
Of the deciduous species, Magnolia x soulangeana is one of the most commonly grown, and is great for slightly more challenging conditions as it can withstand more wind and alkalinity in soil than other magnolias. M x soulangeana bears many pink and white flowers on bare branches in early spring, and grows to a large shrub or small tree.
Magnolia liliiflora is a species originating in southern China (Sichuan and Yunnan provinces), and one of the oldest magnolia species in cultivation. It was cultivated in China and Japan for centuries before being introduced, via Japan, to European gardens. This long history of cultivation makes it difficult to determine where the true wild populations in China are, although it is certainly becoming rarer in the wild.
Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’ is a stunning variety, with narrow, tulip-shaped flowers, which with their dark purple hue have an understated class and beauty. This variety grows to a large shrub, so is perfect for smaller gardens.
Magnolia stellata and kobus are very similar species with small, delicate, star-like blossoms, borne in profusion on the bare branches in early spring. These species have a subtle and fine beauty, with the sculptural flower petals bending about in different shapes, and shades of pink creeping into the blossom depending on fluctuating temperature and light conditions. Thus, the interplay of daily conditions creates an ever-changing palette on these unique blooms, originating from, and prized in, Japan. Both species are slow growing, and M. stellata grows to a much smaller size (approx. 2m high and 4m across), making it more suitable for smaller gardens, while M. kobus can grow to over 10m high and 10m across.
M. stellata and its varieties can also be grown in containers, which also means they can be moved into sunny positions or to an area where you can enjoy the flowers when in bloom.
This is only a brief introduction to the world of magnolias; it is a very rich genus, with more species and forms yet to be discovered in the wilds of China and Central America.