Magnolia TreesHow to plant and care for saucer magnolia, southern magnolia and more
Magnolias, with their showy flowers, intoxicating scent, and glossy green leaves are one of the most popular flowering trees in the country.
The iconic southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is often considered the gold standard of the genus, 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 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.
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. Evergreen types bloom heaviest during the transition from spring to summer. But, 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.
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.
Here are some of the most well-known types of magnolia trees:
- Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora)
- Saucer magnolias (Magnolia ×soulangiana)
- Star magnolias (Magnolia stellata)
- Loebner magnolias (Magnolia ×loebneri)
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.
Plant evergreen magnolias in early spring. Plant deciduous magnolias during autumn if you live in the South and during spring if you live in the North.
Well-drained, rich in organic matter. Can tolerate clay, loam, or sandy soils.
Evergreen varieties grow best in full sun. Deciduous species prefer part shade. Where frost is possible after blooming begins, grow in a protected location.
Magnolia trees require little care and are resistant to many diseases and pests, resulting in long life 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.
If your magnolia is growing and flowering well, there is no need to fertilize. However, if your tree isn’t thriving or has yellow leaves, you should have your soil tested. Check with your local university’s extension to see if they provide soil testing and recommendations for adding supplemental nutrients. If you do decide to fertilize, hold off until the spring after planting your magnolia, then fertilize just as your tree starts to leaf out using a slow release fertilizer.
MAGNOLIAS UP CLOSE
While the magnolia is best known for its flowers, its foliage and fruit are also very attractive.
Magnolia trees are prized for their large flowers that perfume the balmy spring air with a sweet, heady fragrance. Their magnificent tulip- or star-shaped flowers, which can be as large as saucers when fully opened, range in color from pink, purple, white and even yellow. Some varieties have double blossoms.
Evergreen species, such as the southern magnolia, have large, glossy, oval-shaped leaves that remain attractive year-round.
The trees also produce a cone-like fruit with brightly colored seeds that attract songbirds.
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.
For more information and facts, see Plant Lust: Magnolia
Magnolia grandiflora 'Bracken's Brown Beauty', matures at 40 feet and is one of the most cold-hardy selections, growing as far north as New England.
Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem', a dwarf variety with a compact narrow form, has large, white, fragrant blooms that emerge in early summer.
Magnolia ×soulangeana, commonly known as saucer magnolias are the first to bloom in spring and have huge 5- to 10-inch flowers. They are compact, deciduous, low-branched trees that will grow to a height of 20 to 30 feet and are cold-hardy to Zone 5. 'Brozzonii', a popular saucer magnolia cultivar, has large white flowers with lavender-pink bases.
‘Lilliputian’ is another popular saucer magnolia which grows to a height of only 15 feet and displays smaller pink flowers.
Star magnolias (Magnolia stellata) are early blooming, compact, deciduous shrubs that grow 15 to 20 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide. 'Centennial' is a cultivar which features 5-inch flowers with a soft pink blush.
Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star' has pink buds that open to large, fragrant, white flowers.
Loebner magnolias (Magnolia ×loebneri), another deciduous variety, produce an abundance of star-shaped flowers from March through April. Shown here is ‘Leonard Messel’, with its dark and light pink, fragrant, 4-inch flowers on a tree that grows to 20 feet.
Magnolia ×loebneri ‘Merrill’ is a slightly taller cultivar and bears 3-inch fragrant white flowers.
‘Ballerina’ is another Loebner variety which grows to 20 feet tall, with white flowers.
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.