In search of the perfect deciduous bloomer
The majestic Southern magnolia tree, with glossy green leaves and creamy summer blooms, is fundamental to our landscapes, native woodlands, and local art. But there are so many more magnolias you should know.
In fact, there are more than two hundred evergreen, semi-evergreen, and deciduous species of magnolias. The Magnolia Society lists more than a thousand named varieties. If you are fond of the evergreen Southern magnolia, you will fall in love with the deciduous magnolias.
Deciduous magnolias, which drop their leaves in fall and bloom in early spring (usually February and March), are among the most elegant magnolias, often with large, graceful blooms that stand out on bare branches. I will describe some of the more popular deciduous species and let you search your local nurseries and plant catalogs for available plants. One area nursery for deciduous magnolias is Wilkerson Mill Gardens in Palmetto, Georgia (www.hydrangeas.com or (770)463-2400).
Magnolias are among the most ancient and primitive of flowering plants, growing among ginkgos and redwoods millions of years ago. The first magnolia brought to England, a country with no native magnolias, was the semi-evergreen sweetbay or swamp magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), sent to the Bishop of London by one of his missionaries in America in 1687. Our native evergreen Southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) arrived in England in the 1700s. Asian species of magnolias made the trip this way by the late 1700s.
Yulan magnolia (M. denuta), from central China, was introduced in 1789. About thirty feet tall, this plant has creamy buds and white flowers. Early blooming makes it susceptible to late freezes.
In the early 1800s, a French Cavalry officer crossed the Yulan with another Oriental species (M. liliflora) to create M. x soulangeana, introduced to American gardens in 1820. These are the saucer magnolias, twenty- to thirty-foot deciduous trees that bloom in a variety of colors. They are hardy from zones four to nine, but susceptible to late winter freezes.
Another group has star-shaped flowers. Star magnolia (M. stellata) is a deciduous species native to Japan. The fragrant blooms are usually white, with strappy petals, on a shrub that reaches fifteen to twenty feet. Kobus magnolia (M. kobus) is another Japanese native with star-shaped flower that can reach thirty to forty feet. Both were introduced in the 1860s and are among the most cold tolerant (zone four) deciduous magnolias, but they take the heat well too.
There is even a group of deciduous magnolias native to the United states. I have seen two in their native habitat, one in northern Arkansas, another in southern Mississippi. Each had leaves more than twenty-inches long.
The best spot for deciduous magnolias would have full sun or some afternoon shade or high pine shade, good moisture but also good drainage (not boggy), neutral to acid soils, an evergreen or dark background to show off the blooms, and space to show off these specimen plants. Early blooms mean an occasional late freeze will destroy the blooms, but blossoms in milder springs will more than make up for that. These plants are seldom bothered by pests or diseases. If you need to prune, do so after the plant blooms.
As you drive around, visit garden shows, and browse your local nurseries, notice the deciduous magnolias. Such elegance and grace can grow in your garden.