Starting a new 'Tree of the Month' feature in April, it is difficult to look further than the Magnolias which have been unmissable in their showy exuberance hereabouts for several weeks now. In fact the Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata) here at Hearne Arboriculture HQ (see below) could have made it into a February Tree of the Month feature had we had one at the time (everything seems early this year) - and it's still going strong today - 28 April. That's good value. There is a terrific variety too, from the smaller species ideal for small gardens, to those reaching almost forest tree proportions; they can be pure whites or creams and shades of pink through to purples - even an orange. Buddhist monks planted Magnolia denudata and liliiflora at least 2000 years ago as symbols of purity and these are the species most commonly depicted in Chinese paintings. The only slight downside is that those flowering early can be at risk from wind or late frost damage and a sheltered spot might be prudent if you have one.
Named by Linnaeus in honour of Pierre Magnol, a professor of botany and medicine in Montpelier, the Magnolias are native from the Himalayas to Japan and Malaysia and from south east USA to Brazil. There are some 120 species, at least 45 of which are threatened in the wild - the reasons being that they are prized for their wood and medicinal properties, particularly ancient Chinese remedies, where they are valued for treating an assortment of ailments of mainly digestive or respiratory natures, but also (and this is perhaps its downfall) as an aphrodisiac. They are some of the most primitive trees around today (not in the derogatory sense of course), and would have been recognisable more than 95 million years ago. The earliest flowering angiosperm fossils are waterlilies and Magnolias are of similar antiquity. Fairly typically for such primitive plants, the flowers are large, simply coloured and upward facing - a generalist strategy to attract a wide range of insects to disseminate the pollen in the hope that a few will go on to land on another flower of the right species. Some plants may evolve to leave less to chance and form intimate relationships with fewer animals, but playing the numbers game clearly worked for Magnolias.
The Magnolias prefer moist but well drained soil, preferably somewhat acid, in sun or partial shade. Some of them will tolerate Lime, but most won't. Care is needed when planting as the fleshy roots can be damaged and decay when the tree is dormant. Planting is best done so that any wounds can begin healing, and new roots formed, straight away - May is said to be a suitable month.
Above left is the Star Magnolia, or Shidekobushi (M. stellata) here at Hearne HQ. Native to the hills, valley plains, riverbeds and shallow gorges of Japan, it is threatened in the wild from indiscriminate commercial collection and encroaching land development. Its 12-18 white strap shaped petals and sepals are almost indistinguishable, and collectively are called tepals. Introduced to Britain in 1877, it is one of the earliest to flower, in March and April, but ours started in February this year. It forms a compact rounded plant of not more than 3 to 5m in height and must be on everyone's short list for a small garden. The early flowers can be damaged by wind or frost, but they are soon succeeded by more. W J Bean recommends an underplanting of Grape Hyacynth which flowers at the same time. We have a deep red Hellebore which would be just as effective if only we had more of them.
No Magnolia blog can omit the Evergreen or Great-Flowered Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora - a magnificent tree which can get up to about 20m high in warmer climates, with great cream chalice flowers giving a spicy lemon scent from early July until the first frosts, sometimes well into November. It has leathery glossy leaves up to 25cm long. Native of SE USA it was introduced in the early eighteenth century and is generally at its best in this country as a wall shrub where it can spread over two or three stories. Author and gardener Christopher Lloyd describes it as the 'kind of shrub for whose sake any outmoded old parsonage, however riddled with dry rot and beetle, should be acquired with enthusiastic pride. If the owner starts enquiring "how should I prune my Magnolia?" a preservation order, to include every twig, must be served on him forthwith. He should be grateful for being allowed to live in permanently darkened rooms, when the darkness springs from so august an umbrage'. Vegetatively propagated cultivars and hybrids such as 'Goliath' are precocious flowerers, but you will wait many years for flowers if grown from seed.
More Magnolias to follow. We'd love to have your pictures too.