Magnolias are magical plants and have been appreciated as garden subjects for centuries. The Chinese planted magnolias at their temples as early as the 7th century and magnolias featured prominently in traditional Chinese and Japanese art. The many species, over 210 with more being discovered with some regularity, are mainly concentrated in southeastern Asia with secondary distributions in eastern North America and Mexico through Central America into South America.
Interestingly, the first recorded magnolia to arrive in Europe was not an Asian species but was our own native Magnolia virginiana or sweetbay magnolia. Today the southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, with its glossy, deep green leaves and huge fragrant flowers is one of the most widely cultivated trees around the world—seen lining streets in China, gracing parks from Italy to New Zealand, and even huddled up against houses in chilly England. The usually large spring flowers, range of sizes, and durability of magnolias ensures that almost all but the smallest garden has room for at least 1 or 2 magnolias.
Picking favorites among this venerable group is next to impossible and an informal query amongst other magnolia lovers produced almost no consensus for the best of the best. A few of my favorites follow but ask me tomorrow and I may have an entirely different list!
Magnolia ‘Coral Lake’ is a breakthrough in color for magnolias with large flowers in shades of pink with yellow tones streaking up the tepals (the petals and calyx collectively). The interiors of the flowers are a similar mix of colors in lighter shades. The overall effect is shimmering coral, thick-textured flowers up to 7 inches across when fully open. The colors shift and change throughout the day as the sun strikes at different angles. As an added bonus, the flowers don’t begin to open until just before the leaves emerge making it immune to most late frosts.
It is a stout-branched, relatively compact selection with a distinctly upright sweep to the branches making it not so much fastigiate as gumdrop shaped. In just over a decade in the garden, it will be 18 to 25 feet tall and 8 to 12 feet wide, the ideal size for a smaller garden. ‘Coral Lake’ was hybridized by the outstanding breeder David Leach who crossed 2 larger growing yellow selections. When this seedling first flowered, he saw that some horticultural hanky-panky had happened but realized sometimes Mother Nature does know best and introduced ‘Coral Lake to the world.
Purple banana shrub, Magnolia (formally Michelia) figo var. crassipes ‘Royal Robes’ has quickly become one of the most commented upon plants in the JC Raulston Arboretum where it forms a tight, upright pyramid of dark, evergreen foliage. In May it covers itself in deep burgundy flowers with a fruity fragrance although unfortunately not as strong an aroma as some other banana shrubs. The flowers are just under 2-inches across but this flowering machine bears the blooms from stem tip along the previous year’s growth. It will flower sporadically through the summer season but not in any significant numbers after the spring show.
I have found ‘Royal Robes’ to be tough but moderately slow growing even in full sun and very rich soil making it ideal as a hedge, in a mixed shrub border, or anchoring the corner of a foundation planting. The 10-year height in full sun will be 8 to 15-feet and about half as wide, in more shade expect it to stretch and open up a bit more. It has proven to be quite cold hardy, barely discoloring even in single digits for short periods but it should be sited out of cold, drying winter winds.
Named for the late director of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where this exceptional magnolia was developed, Magnolia ‘Judy Zuk’ has quickly gone from a relative unknown selection to topping the list of many magnoliaphiles including Andrew Bunting of the Atlanta Botanic Garden and former president of the Magnolia Society International. Andrew says this is his favorite – high praise indeed!
‘Judy Zuk’ may have the deepest gold color of any magnolia, verging on orange in some locations, with purple and pink staining at the base of the flower. The blossoms have a fruity, somewhat spicy fragrance which has been compared, favorably I think, to Froot Loops cereal. The flowers emerge relatively late in spring avoiding frost damage and tend to stay upright and tight for an extended period. Among its other remarkable attributes, ‘Judy Zuk’ grows quite narrow and upright allowing it to fit in spaces many other deciduous magnolias would quickly outgrow. Expect it to make a 30-foot tall tree with a spread only 8 to 12-feet wide. Like all magnolias, it will perform best in sun with moist, well-drained soil.
The outstanding selection from Bob Head of South Carolina known as ‘Southern Charm’ or more commonly, Teddy Bear, is my top pick of our native southern magnolia for modern landscapes. While larger selections are fine for antebellum mansions, most of us are somewhat more restricted regarding space. ‘Southern Charm’ makes a slow-growing, exceptionally dense evergreen tree. The broad, leathery leaves are deep green above and heavily felted with rusty brown hairs beneath. Large white, lemon-scented flowers grace the tree in late spring and off and on throughout the summer. It is unfortunately somewhat shy to bloom but the exceptional form and foliage more than makes up for the floral display.
The original seedling hasn’t topped 30 feet after 30 years in the garden and is less than half as wide on a very upright pyramidal plant. ‘Southern Charm’ is a better plant for small gardens than the popular ‘Little Gem’, remaining more compact, and much denser. Plant it as a specimen, hedge, or allee where the form can be appreciated.
I had heard all the rumors but I must confess that I did not believe the hype surrounding the selection ‘March til Frost’ until I had tried it for myself. Large goblets of rosy-purple flowers with pale interiors open en masse in spring but then continue sporadically through the rest of the growing season. Prolific magnolia breeder Dr. August Kehr considered this one of his finest introductions and I certainly can’t argue with him.
This everblooming magnolia grows to about 15 to 20 feet tall and nearly as wide. It makes a striking addition to a woodland edge, mixed shrub border or as a specimen plant where the summer and fall flowers add season-long interest. Because of its prolific flowering, it is a heavy feeder and will benefit from a mid-summer shot of your favorite fertilizer or a spring application of a slow-release fertilizer and a compost top dressing in winter.
This strikingly beautiful star magnolia, Magnolia stellata ‘Chrysanthemumiflora’, comes from famed Japanese breeder K. Wada who introduced a wide variety of magnolias to cultivation. Despite the tongue-twisting name, it is often considered the finest pink star magnolia with soft blushing flowers composed of up to 40 tepals per flower. Small leaves and twiggy growth give it a relatively fine texture throughout the growing season.
This and many other star magnolias can be used as large shrubs growing as low-branched plants to 8 to 12-feet or trained up to a single stem as a small tree to 18-foot tall. While it blooms early enough in spring to take the occasional late frost, it more typically puts on a reliable show. It makes a spectacular specimen and is best planted where the flowers can be appreciated up close.
The large deciduous magnolia known as ‘Spectrum’ was bred at the National Arboretum back in 1962 by W.F. Kosar. It bears numerous, very large, vivid pink-purple, fragrant flowers in mid-spring. ‘Spectrum’ is large enough of a plant to serve as a shade tree in a smaller suburban landscape but open enough to allow shade perennials and shrubs to thrive beneath it. The individual, upright flowers can easily be 10”-12” and a tree in full flower is truly a sight to behold.
‘Spectrum’ has stout branches that can be quite lovely in the winter against a crisp, clear blue sky. It is a quick grower and has been used extensively as a rootstock for grafted magnolias since the vigorous root system will encourage quick growth. It flowers at a young age and plants as young as 3 to 4 years old can put on an impressive display.
Easy to Grow Magnolias
Magnolias are not fussy in their needs, moist, well-drained soil is best and because they will be long-term garden residents amending the bed where they will be planted with compost is warranted. Magnolias have fleshy roots that prefer not to be disturbed especially during the growing season. Plant them while dormant and avoid as much root disturbance as possible while in growth even once established. Because they resent root disturbance, underplanting them with long-lived perennials or small shrubs is generally better than growing annuals beneath Magnolias. Water your plant regularly and deeply for the first couple of years of establishment and during drought conditions. The evergreen forms typically prefer to be out of cold, desiccating winds.
Whatever your garden situation, there is likely a great magnolia to fit your needs. Whether you need a large tree or a shrub, like big flamboyant flowers or elegant whites magnolias can fit the bill. Check out the selection of great magnolias at your local garden center or come out to the JC Raulston Arboretum for the Raulston Blooms plant sale, birdhouse competition, and garden festival.
Featured image: ‘Forrests Pink’ magnolia / JC Raulston Arboretum
Mark Weathington is the director of the JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State University in Raleigh.