The iconic southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is often considered the gold standard of the species, prized for its large flowers that perfume the balmy spring air with a sweet, heady fragrance. But magnolias, particularly the deciduous varieties, can be grown in almost any region of the U.S., from the tip of Florida to as far north as Maine and Washington. Magnolias also come in a wide array of cultivars that can accommodate the scale of any garden, from 15-foot shrubs to massive trees that can reach heights of 80 feet or more. In common to all is an exotic beauty that has made the magnolia one of the most popular flowering trees in the country, if not the world. Their showy blossoms, intoxicating scent, and glossy green leaves add a distinctive lushness to the garden that few trees can duplicate.

M. x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’. Photo by Rob Cardillo.

REASONS TO LOVE THEM

The key attractions of magnolias are their magnificent tulip-or star-shaped flowers, which can be as large as saucers when fully opened. They range in color from pink, purple, white and even yellow, and some varieties have double blossoms. Evergreen species, such as the southern magnolia, have large, glossy, oval-shaped leaves that remain attractive year-round. On deciduous varieties, the flowers open in early spring before the leaves appear, emerging from large pussy-willow-like buds that set during the previous growing season and remain throughout fall and winter. The trees also produce a cone-like fruit with brightly colored seeds that attract songbirds.

BEST VARIETIES FOR RESIDENTIAL GARDENS

Eight species of magnolias—two evergreen and six deciduous—are native to the United States. These native species have proven quite adaptable and many can flourish in gardens outside their natural growing zone.

  • The standard southern magnolia can attain heights of 60 to 80 feet at maturity, making it too large for most residential landscapes. Cultivars more practical for the home garden include 'Bracken's Brown Beauty,' which matures at 40 feet and is one of the most cold-hardy selections, growing as far north as New England, and the compact 'Little Gem,' a dwarf variety with a compact narrow form and large, white, fragrant blooms that emerge in early summer.
  • Of the deciduous varieties, one of the first to bloom is the saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana), which displays huge 5- to 10-inch flowers in early spring. These compact low-branched trees will grow to a height of 20 to 30 feet and are cold-hardy to Zone 5. Popular cultivars include 'Brozzonii', which has large white flowers with lavender-pink bases, and ‘Lilliputian,’ which grows to a height of only 15 feet and displays smaller pink flowers.
  • Another early bloomer is the star magnolia (M. stellate), a compact deciduous shrub that grows 15 to 20 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide. Attractive cultivars include 'Centennial', which features 5-inch flowers with a soft pink blush, and 'Royal Star', with pink buds that open to large, fragrant, white flowers.
  • Loebner magnolias, another deciduous variety, produce an abundance of star-shaped flowers from March through April. Shown here is ‘Leonard Messel’ (M. x loebneri), with its dark and light pink, fragrant, 4-inch flowers on a tree that grows to 20 feet. Slightly taller ‘Merrill’ bears 3-inch fragrant white flowers. Other Loebner varieties include ‘Ballerina’ (20 feet tall, with white flowers); ‘Spring Snow’ (25 feet tall, pure white flowers); and ‘Super Star’ (30 feet tall, white flowers).

WHERE TO PLANT THEM

When planting magnolias, pick the site carefully. They have wide-spread, shallow root systems that can be easily damaged during transplanting. Larger magnolias have branch spreads of 30 to 40 feet, making them useful as shade trees in larger yards. Compact, shrubby varieties are attractive in borders or as an ornamental tree in Asian gardens.

Zones:

4-9

Size:

From 15 to more than 80 feet, depending on the species.

Soil:

Well-drained, rich in organic matter. Can tolerate clay, loam, or sandy soils.

Exposure:

Evergreen varieties grow best in full sun. Deciduous species prefer part shade. Where frost is possible after blooming begins, grow in a protected location.

Photo by: Jerry Pavia.

CARE REQUIREMENTS

Magnolia trees require little care and are resistant to many diseases and pests, resulting in long live spans of 100 years or more given the right growing conditions. Most varieties tolerate hot summers and moderate drought, making them a resilient choice for gardens in harsher climates. However, younger trees should be watered regularly until fully established.

Magnolias typically need little pruning other than to remove crossed or damaged branches or for aesthetic reasons. The best time for pruning is soon after the tree has finished blooming, in either late spring or early summer. Pruning too late in the season will result in fewer blossoms the following spring.

MAGNOLIA TREE FACTS

  • Magnolias are believed to be the earliest known flowering plants, with their fossils dating back over 100 million years. Magnolia trees even existed before bees, so they rely on beetles for pollination. Instead of nectar, the flowers produce large quantities of pollen that the beetles use for food.
  • The oldest trees on the grounds of the White House are two southern magnolias planted between 1829 and 1837 by Andrew Jackson, in memory of his wife, Rachel, who died two weeks after Jackson won the election.
  • Magnolia flowers are actually composed of “tepals,” a combination of sepals and petals similar in size and shape, comparable to water lilies.
  • Don’t be surprised if your magnolia tree reblooms in the summer or early fall. It’s not uncommon for sporadic blooms to appear on new growth.

For more information and facts, see Plant Lust: Magnolia

BEST PLACES TO SEE THEM

To locate public gardens and arboretums throughout the United States that have noteworthy magnolia collections, check this map from The Magnolia Society International. The map also shows you places to see magnolias around the world, including Europe, the Far East, and Australia.

Related:

Flowering Trees for Residential Gardens

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