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Plant Notebook
Spring Flowering Magnolias

Spring - it is a wonderful time and perhaps the magnolias that flower in the spring are amongst the most special and beautiful.

Magnolias are one of the loveliest and most impressive spring flowers. Coming early in the season, with their thick, waxy petals forming goblets on bare branches, a mature magnolia in full bloom is a breathtaking sight. Take your notebook, camera and friends and go and visit your local botanic garden if you are not familiar with these wonderful plants and you will find the 'wish list' grows at every turn.

All of the spring flowering magnolias have wonderful silky buds which form in winter and are a reminder of the wonders to some.

Magnolia campbellii
Magnolia campbellii and its cultivars are amongst the earliest to flower. M .c. 'Charles Raffill' is a lovely, pink form, while M. c. 'Larnarth' tends to the cerise. M.c. subsp. mollicomata flowers when younger and is a soft pink, totally lovely.

There are a number of new hybrids, some New Zealand raised, that flower when younger and are more suited to the average garden than M. campbellii itself. Even these, however, need space to develop if they are to be truly pleasing. Some of the lovely, larger (and New Zealand bred) hybrids that you might consider are
  • 'Star Wars' - massive pink blooms
  • 'Ioanthe' - soft-pink blooms, paler inside, which face outwards and are 25-30cm across
  • 'Atlas' - flushed pink, the blooms reaching 30cm across
  • 'Vulcan' - intense reddish purple flowers
  • 'Apollo' - a rich rose with the insides pink
  • 'Felix Jury' huge soft pink flowers
All the above form medium-sized trees and flower from about five years of age.

The smaller magnolias, even though eventually quite large, are more suited to the average suburban garden or small backyard. Ensure that you give them room to develop, planting dispensable neighbouring shrubs or perennials nearby. Magnolias do not like to be moved, they come from a forest situation where root disturbance is uncommon and they have grown used to being left in peace.

Magnolia sargentiana var robusta
A spreading tree magnolia, eventually up to 12m (40ft) high, that bears huge numbers of stunning bright pink flowers, paler on the inside, partly hanging from the branches. Flowering from a relatively young age (for a magnolia!), this wonderful plant is rarely seen in New Zealand, although it has parented a number of exceptional hybrids overseas.

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Magnolia 'Felix Jury'

Magnolia 'Felix Jury'

Magnolia 'Leonard Messel'

Magnolia 'Leonard Messel'

One of the keys to success is to allow for the ultimate size of the magnolia, even if this means using temporary shrubs or plantings around it. Magnolias resent disturbance and do not transplant easily. Allow about 6.0m around the larger magnolias, less for narrower and smaller M. stellata.

Select a site protected from wind and offers either light shade or sun (magnolias in full shade can become scraggly and flower sparsely). Place deciduous, spring-flowering magnolias where the sun will not cause buds to open prematurely, risking frost damage.

Magnolias prefer a well-drained, good garden loam that is rich in organic matter, compost or leafmould, much like their forest home. Plant when dormant to reduce the risk of the plant sulking!

A planting hole more than twice the width of the root ball is required. Do not 'bury' the plant but keep it at the same level as indicated by the soil mark on the main stem. Magnolias are surface feeders and planting too deeply will not make for a happy plant.

Stake new plants to help them to establish, removing the stake after one year. Mulch to conserve moisture, leaving the stem itself clear to avoid collar rot. A little 'NPK' fertiliser may provide a good start, but good irrigation for the first growing season is more important.

Avoid damaging the roots when working nearby, as this can easily set the magnolia back and can sometimes be fatal.

Mulch magnolias each spring to conserve moisture and add needed nutrients, again take care to avoid collar rot.

Pruning is not necessary, although you can prune to reduce the size of your magnolia. Pruning removes flowering wood, reducing flowering the following season.

Magnolia seeds have a rather grotesque appearanceMagnolias frequently set seed, the large seed pods having a rather grotesque appearance, and species plants such as M. kobus can be seed raised. Named cultivars and hybrids must be grown from cuttings, layered, budded or grafted - generally areas for the expert hoticulturalist.

Magnolias are widely available. Some species magnolias are available from specialist tree and shrub nurseries only

Magnolia x s. 'San Jose'

Magnolia x s. 'San Jose'

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Last revised 02 Jun '03