Each year in late winter, deciduous magnolia opens up impressive blooms on foliage-free stems before the bright green leaves arrive in spring.
The large, fragrant flowers come in white, pink, purple or yellow, and can be on display for weeks at a time, cheering up a garden otherwise devoid of colour.
An ancient plant family that originated in China, Magnoliaceae has more than 80 species in the genus, and fossil records show some are almost 60 million years old.
Magnolias have been highly prized throughout history. Intrepid plant hunters from Britain braved dangerous journeys in the 18th century to search for the exotic plant in China, the Himalayas and Tibet.
Keep it small
Magnolias range from medium-sized shrubs to small trees up to eight metres tall, and many are too large for an average-sized backyard.
Compact varieties are better in small gardens, such as Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’, a pink-flowering tree that should only reach three metres.
With a mature size of up to five metres, Magnolia x loebneri ‘Ballerina’ is another favourite, featuring masses of white flowers tinged with pink from late winter through to spring.
The recently released compact evergreen Magnolia grandiflora ‘Teddy Bear’ is a popular choice, with glossy rounded leaves and large white blooms.
TIP: Even if size isn’t an issue, plant a single species of magnolia to better appreciate the colour and form.
Michelia is a genus of about 50 flowering shrubs and trees that is also part of the magnolia family.
Most varieties are evergreen rather than deciduous, and rely on strongly scented flowers to attract pollinators rather than colourful blooms.
The port wine magnolia with its strongly fragrant purple flowers and small growth habit is probably the best known, and often used for hedging.
For small gardens Michelia yunnanensis ‘Scented Pearl’ only gets to three or four metres high, so is happy growing in a large pot or can even be espaliered against a courtyard wall.
In the garden
Magnolia is a relatively easy-care plant that is resistant to disease and doesn’t need much maintenance.
- Position magnolia in full sun with shelter from hot afternoon rays but not too much shade, as this causes leggy growth and poor flowering. Magnolia also needs protection from strong winds that can bruise the delicate flowers. It doesn’t like to have its roots disturbed, so avoid planting anything underneath it and keep weeds at bay.
- Plant in well-drained soil with added compost and manure. Add a layer of organic fertiliser as mulchin spring and water regularly.
- Pruning is rarely required and can ruin the plant’s natural shape if you cut it back too harshly. Remove dead wood and trim branches growing in unwanted directions. Cut small excess branches in spring before the buds burst to use for indoor floral arrangements.
- Watch for snails and slugs, which love the foliage. Leaf spot can be an issue after wet weather. Apply copper fungicide as a preventative measure, or wait for the magnolia to lose its leaves then rake and burn them.