Everything You Need to Know About Magnolia Trees

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Her tone was indignant. “I’m telling you, it is a tulip tree! My grandmother planted it, and she was president of the garden club and knew her plants!”

I kept a smile on my face, inwardly chanting “…an opportunity to practice patience,” as I explained common names can vary between regions, towns and even families. A daffodil, for example, might be called a jonquil by the next person you ask. A few common names for the flowering tree in this dispute are tulip magnolia, saucer magnolia and yes, even tulip tree. To confuse further, Tennessee’s state tree is also sometimes called a tulip tree or tulip poplar, and it’s known as yellow poplar to the lumber industry! Point made?

I pacified her by commenting that it’s nice to find those rare conflicts where neither party is wrong, though efforts to pull together on common names across the nation have caused most in the industry to let the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants by Dr. Michael Dirr set the standard. He calls the tree in this particular dispute the saucer magnolia, Magnolia Xsoulangeana. The glossy, large evergreen tree likely to be first in our minds when we envision a magnolia is deemed the Southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora. A quick check will reveal that there are many species in the nursery trade, evergreen and deciduous, and a bewildering number of complex hybrids.

Let’s ditch the taxonomy and get to the fun! After all, the beauty of the tree in question was indisputable, and its durability confirmed by the fact that her grandmother had planted it. You may be looking at one in your own yard that is still here for the third, fourth or fifth generation of the family even as you read this article. It’s heartwarming to think of that person patting soil around a small tree’s roots so many decades ago – sometimes so long ago that the tree still stands sentinel over a foundation long since crumbled into the earth.

A common form planted several decades ago is likely to be a cultivar called ‘Alexandrina.’ The pinky-purple flowers have white interiors and are somewhat tulip-shaped, hence the nickname. This broad-to-pyramidal tree is often multi-stemmed and may reach 30 feet in height with a similar spread. A smaller, shrubbier lily magnolia, Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra,’ appears often as well. Its flowers are a deeper purple with a blush pink interior.

These days you can find a dizzying number of deciduous magnolia cultivars, with more arriving on the nursery scene each year. Breeding efforts create more brilliant colors, better growth habits and even later bloom time, as the complaint most often made about this group of flowering trees is that frost often turns the flowers to mush just as they peak. It does happen, but it’s rare that you don’t get to enjoy the blooms for a few days, on an attractive tree that flourishes on most any site. I enjoy the winter silhouettes of sculptural pearly gray limbs and large fuzzy flower buds.

Star magnolias, Magnolia stellate, are also deserving garden performers, offering white to soft pink flowers that burst with lax strappy petals in early spring. These can be found in shrub or tree forms. ‘Centennial,’ ‘Royal Star,’ ‘Waterlily’ and ‘Chrysanthemiflora’ are all fine selections.

If a good-sized white blooming tree form fits your landscape needs, it is hard to beat the performance of Magnolia xloebneri ‘Merrill.’ It can reach 30 to 40 feet, and offers its blooms in April, usually avoiding spring frosts. ‘Leonard Messel’ is another in this group that would serve as a smaller tree, up to 20 feet, and has wonderfully fragrant crinkled pink flowers. Though it blooms quite early, late February or March, its flowers are often more frost-resistant.

My first meeting with a complex hybrid known as ‘Wada’s Memory’ was indeed memorable. It has been recognized not just for its showy white flowers, but also for the strong, tight pyramidal form that makes it a good candidate for urban settings.

These are just a few commonly offered, but if you find yourself smitten with magnolia mania, you are not alone. The Magnolia Society will help you explore this vast group of plants – and maybe even settle the great name debates. The only argument remaining is likely to be how many magnolias can fit into your landscape.

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