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Spring 2021

Magnificent Magnolias

Is there anything more glorious than a magnolia in full bloom? These trees aren't only gorgeous – they're ancient. In fact, magnolias are among the oldest tree species in the world, with fossil records dating back 60 million years. Today we use them as accent trees, for shade, and the smaller cultivars even make nice hedges. Depending on the species, magnolias are deciduous or evergreen, with flowers perched singly at or near the tips of branches. The leathery, cone-shaped fruits have many large, fleshy seeds.


Growing conditions

Magnolias prefer full sun to light shade in moderate to warm climates. In summer-dry climates like Marin's, they benefit from a little afternoon shade in exposed inland locations. Avoid windy areas, because strong winds can damage flowers or even snap off branches. Magnolias prefer moist, acidic soil but will perform in less ideal soil. Clay, loam, or sandy soil is fine so long as it drains. Although it takes deep, thorough, and regular water to get magnolia trees established, mature trees can become somewhat drought tolerant. The best time to plant a deciduous magnolia is in early winter when it's dormant.

 

Bloom time

Depending on the species, magnolias bloom between February and June. Late-blooming magnolias include the evergreen Oyama magnolia (Magnolia sieboldii) and the extra-large, glossy-leaved southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). Some deciduous magnolias are the first trees to bloom, unfolding sublime pastel pink flowers on naked branches in late winter and early spring before leaves appear. The best example of this is the popular saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana), which adorns many gardens throughout Marin.

 

Pruning

Most magnolias grow at a slow to moderate rate. If they have ample room to stretch out, giant evergreen magnolias do not require much or any pruning. Allow their large, rounded shape to naturally evolve. If you do need to prune, wait till late summer or right after flowering has ended. Prune deciduous magnolias lightly as well, to avoid altering their attractive sculptural shape.

 

Where to see magnolias

The San Francisco Botanical Garden has a collection of 200 magnolias that explode into bloom January through March. This is an excellent way to experience the glory and grandeur of these spectacular trees. Or, if you can't see them in person, check out their video with drone footage.  

Here are five popular magnolias.

Pixabay
Pixabay
Magnolia 'Black Tulip' is a slender, multi-branched deciduous tree, growing up to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It bears large, dramatic, dark burgundy flowers in early spring – some reach 6 inches in diameter. This is a great choice for a specimen tree, as part of a tall hedge, or even in a large container.

Pixabay
Pixabay
Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is a deciduous tree that grows 10 feet tall and 12 feet wide and bears fragrant, star-like flowers. It's a lovely choice at an entryway or near a patio, especially when up-lit at night, where its bright white flowers can shine. In winter, the bare branches create an attractive silhouette. It takes three years before it blooms, but it's worth the wait.

Pixabay
Pixabay
Saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) is a familiar sight in spring. This native of France grows 25 feet tall and wide, sometimes larger, and its multi-trunked, low-branching growth habit creates a lovely pale backdrop for the fragrant, iconic floral show. Saucer magnolia blooms at an early age. It prefers fertile soil and regular water.

PlantMaster
PlantMaster
Magnolia 'Little Gem'
is a much smaller version of the massive Magnolia grandiflora, which grows 80 feet tall and has roots that can extend four times the width of the canopy. This smaller version grows 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide, making it a much better fit for backyards and patios. Extra-large, fragrant, ivory flowers unfold in spring and summer, making it a long-blooming magnolia. 'Little Gem' is a popular tree throughout California. 

PlantMaster
PlantMaster
Yulan magnolia (Magnolia denudata) needs roomy surroundings because it can grow up to 40 feet tall and wide. Its fragrant, ivory flowers are 6 inches across and borne on bare branches in spring. This magnolia is a native of China, where it has a history of cultivation that dates back to the Tang Dynasty in 618 AD. This tree was the first Asian magnolia introduced to the western world.