When a deciduous magnolia blooms, everyone stops to admire. Its blossoms, on bare branches, are showy and often fragrant. But on some April mornings, the fragrant rose-pink flower buds on 'Big Dude' (a cross between M. soulangiana 'Wada's Picture' and M. sprengeri 'Diva') at the home of Dick Figlar in Pomona, New York, are swathed in wool socks, coddled against anticipated cold. No beauty, and less fragrance.
Not that the tree itself is tender: 'Big Dude' has survived temperatures as low as -29°F. But when weather forecasters predict widely scattered frost, Figlar doesn't want to lose what he considers a fabulous blossom. However, loss of magnolia flowers to late frosts has led some people to call them the one-day flower.
"Still," says Figlar, "more people are discovering that magnolias are not necessarily tender plants. Some thrive as far north as USDA Hardiness Zone 3. And a few new hybrids bloom so late in spring they are rarely hit by frost." He grows 35 varieties -- 20 of which flourish -- at his home in zone 6. Between April 1 and early fall, some magnolias are always in bloom. (At his second home, in South Carolina, he grows more than a hundred additional kinds.)
Like most plant enthusiasts, Figlar is much taken by his favorite plant's flowers. M. sargentiana robusta, for example, flaunts flowers so huge -- up to 14-inches across -- their stems can't support them. M. campbellii mollicomata 'Lanarth' displays spectacular flowers of violet-red fading to purple; British gardeners went wild over it in 1943 when it flowered. "It's probably the most stunning magnolia ever found," Figlar says.
Color. Recently, yellow magnolias have taken this country by storm. "Everyone who raises rhododendrons wants a yellow magnolia," Figlar says. One of the first yellows available and still the best known is the fragrant 'Elizabeth' (a cross between M. acuminata and M. denudata). Another is 'Butterflies', a cross of M. acuminata and M. denudata 'Sawada's Cream'. Its flowers are a deeper yellow than those of 'Elizabeth', and it's very cold-hardy.
Still, Figlar prefers the yellow forms of the cucumber tree (M. acuminata) to the hybrids. Indeed, he selected one variety, 'Skylands Best', and registered it with The Magnolia Society.
Shape. He also finds the shape of the flowers engaging. Blooms on M. soulangiana, a cross between M. denudata and M. liliiflora and the most popular magnolia in the North, have a pleasing saucer shape. The flowers of whiteleaf (M. hypoleuca) are cup shaped. Star magnolia (M. stellata) produces up to 30 petal-like tepals that radiate outward from the flower center like the rays of a star. In 1977, the variety 'Centennial' won the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's gold medal award.
Scent. Figlar is particularly sensitive to magnolias' fragrance. He's planted the sweet bay magnolia (M. virginiana) beside his patio not only because it offers filtered shade but also because it releases a strong lemon scent. And the crushed leaves and stems of anise magnolia (M. salicifolia) smell like, well, anise.
Foliage. He is even more pleased by the foliage. Many trees have huge leaves -- some over 2 feet long -- or shiny ones that give a lush, tropical look. Leaves on the sweet bay and bigleaf (M. macrophylla) have silvery undersides that shimmer in the wind.
The genus Magnolia comprises about 128 species, most of which are evergreen. Trees are native to Asia, the southeastern United States, Latin America, and South America. Only six species are native to the United States.
Magnolias grow as trees, some reaching 100 feet, and as multi-trunk shrubs, a few of which can reach 50 feet tall. However, most of the shrubs, which are characterized by multiple stems, range in height from 10 to 20 feet. Most deciduous magnolias are precocious (they bloom before the leaves appear), producing a spectacular display of unalloyed color. Magnolias that bloom in February or March (or earlier) are precocious.
Asked to select his favorite magnolias, Figlar doesn't hesitate to run through his list: Oyama (M. sieboldii) and Yulan magnolias (M. denudata) are great magnolias. Anyone can grow them. Lily magnolias (M. liliiflora), are also easy to grow. 'Vulcan', a cross of M. campbellii and M. liliiflora is magnificent. So is 'Spectrum', a cross between M. liliiflora 'Nigra' and M. sprengeri 'Diva'." Like almost all fanciers, Figlar loves the star magnolias (M. stellata) 'Centennial', 'Royal Star', and 'Rubra'. And M. zenii because it blooms in March. M. biondii, though its flowers aren't spectacular, also starts to bloom very early in spring.
Other experts weigh in with their favorite deciduous magnolias. In a 1996 article in American Nurseryman, garden writer Nancy Rose listed several magnolias well suited for urban landscapes in the Upper Midwest. Among them were M. stellata and M. loebneri 'Leonard Messel' and 'Merrill'. And Barry Yinger, a plant explorer and writer, gives high praise to two new David Leach introductions, available for the first time this year: 'Golden Girl' produces axillary as well as terminal blossoms over a four-week period, and 'Coral Lake' is the first coral-colored magnolia.
Fraser magnolia (M. fraseri) blooms after 7 years, M. campbellii 'Lanarth' after 16, the whiteleaf (M. hypoleuca) after 8, and Sargent's (M. sargentiana robusta) after 15 years. M. stellata, on the other hand, blooms in about 3 years from a cutting, and Figlar once grew a bigleaf that bore a 10-inch flower when it was 4 years old and 14 inches tall.
He says, "Almost any magnolia grown alone on the corner of a front lawn makes a fine specimen, except for the so-called eight Little Girls, also known as Kosar-DeVos hybrids -- 'Ann', 'Betty', and so forth -- and the small, shrubby star magnolia, which are too small to stand as specimens. Magnolia also look fine in groups; their colors are pleasingly compatible. But don't crowd them in with other kinds of trees and shrubs. I planted mine along the side of the yard to look like a woodland border." Figlar likes to plant an area densely, letting the leaves touch and the branches intertwine. When they get too crowded, he cuts some away.
When you shop for a magnolia, look for large, vibrant leaves and vigorous growth on the ends of twigs. A good time to shop is in the spring when you may see blossoms. It's fine to buy plants that are already in bloom. Because magnolias have soft, fleshy roots that damage easily, they're difficult to plant compared to many other trees. (Once established, however, magnolias forgive occasional neglect.) If possible, buy plants in containers.
When selecting a site, keep in mind the ultimate size of the plant. Magnolias don't like to be transplanted. Space trees about 25 feet apart. Because blossoms and leaves are susceptible to wind damage, try to choose a protected site. A north-facing location might delay bloom until after the last frost, saving the blossoms. Like many plants, magnolias prefer well-drained soil that's rich in organic matter and has a pH of 5.5 to 6.5.
Plant balled and burlapped magnolias when they're dormant, or in late spring after growth has started. Trees grown in containers, however, can be planted whenever the soil is moist. As for the planting hole, the old rule applies: a $10 hole for a $5 plant. Make the planting hole twice as wide as the rootball. Pruning roots at planting time stimulates faster growth early on, but the gain is lost after a year or so.
Because magnolias are surface feeders, plant them no more than an inch deeper than they were planted at the nursery. Fertilize lightly with a 5-10-5 formula, and mulch to retain soil moisture and to discourage weeds. Anchor the tree until it becomes established.
Pruning and Mulching. It isn't necessary to prune branches to encourage growth after transplanting, although you can prune an ungainly plant to improve its appearance. In cold-winter climates, prune precocious magnolias in summer after they've bloomed. Prune all others when they're dormant.
Keep a circle of mulch around the tree, and continue fertilizing as needed. However, so the plant will stop producing new growth and will harden off, don't fertilize it after midsummer.
Magnolias can take an irritatingly long time to bloom, anywhere from 2 or 3 years to 12 to 15 years (M. campbellii can take 20).
Pests and Diseases. A few pests and diseases afflict magnolias. Among the most troublesome is magnolia scale (Neoleucanium cornuparvum), which settles on foliage and sucks out the plant's juices. Heavy infestations may be controlled with dormant oil spray if applied early in the season. Spray soft-bodied insects such as aphids with dish detergent mixed with water.
Other predators include slugs, borers, and deer. Control slugs by sinking shallow containers filled with beer into the soil; the slugs crawl in and drown. Figlar has lost a couple of treasured trees to borers and confesses he knows no way to stop them. Fortunately, they seem to attack only stressed trees.
Deterring deer is a black art. Dorothy Callaway in her excellent book, The World of Magnolias (Timber Press, 1994; $50) recommends hanging a bar of soap against the trunk of the tree about 4 feet above the ground. The odor may act as a repellent.
Eliot Tozer gardens and writes in Tappan, New York.
Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association