Casual Gardener: Magic magnolia

Magnolia flowers herald the arrival of spring. Picture by PA Photo/thinkstockphotos

Expect magnolia's magic display a little earlier than usual this year...

THIS spring is all about early flowering. Snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils all seem to have bloomed a couple of weeks before they should, while the buds on many deciduous trees are already swelling. Recent research comparing flowering dates from as far back as the late 18th century, showed that some herbaceous plants were producing flowers an average of 32 days earlier compared to 200 years ago. It's a development that will put many flowers out of kilter with the insects the plants rely on for pollination, while it'll also make tender species in bloom more susceptible if temperatures suddenly drop.

One of the most distinctive and anticipated flowers of spring is the magnolia – those lucky enough to have one of the ostentatious early flowerers are also wary of severe late frost. Pre-Covid, I would've spied a few fine-looking magnolia on my commute down Belfast's Cregagh Road, their bright, fleeting flowers signalling the arrival of spring proper. However, home working means I'm unable to assess their progress over the coming weeks and can only assume that pretty much like every other plant, they are bursting into flower a couple of weeks ahead of schedule.

While in many ways magnolias signal glamour and sophistication, they are in fact one of the plant kingdom's most primitive forms of flowering plant. They were around some 100 million years ago, long before bees arrived, their large scented tulip-like flowers pollinated by beetles. These beautiful shrubs and trees now rank among the most popular additions, as a single specimen, in medium-to-large gardens. Deciduous or evergreen, magnolias range in size from small shrubs to large trees. The flowers come in a variety of colours too, from pure white through pink to deep magenta and even yellow. Most flower in spring, but there are a number of summer-flowering varieties. Many also have an attractive scent.

They tend to prefer fertile, neutral or acidic soil and can take up to 20 years to reach full size. It is therefore important to think carefully about site and variety before forking out for what can sometimes be a relatively expensive purchase.

Two magnolia that are happy in alkaline soils are M. stellata and Magnolia x loebneri. The former is a compact deciduous shrub with a bushy habit that is ideal where space is limited, growing to 1.5m-2.5m over a decade. It's also a good choice for pots, flowering profusely in early to mid-spring, producing big, side plate-sized, delicate-looking but tough flowers, which are sometimes pure white, sometimes faintly pink-flushed. After the flowers, light green leaves appear.

A bigger tree producing similar shaped, but pale lilac pink flowers is Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel', which flowers profusely and reaches around 8m at maturity.

Magnolia Soulangeana is a large deciduous shrub or small tree with eye-catching pastel pink and white flowers that emerge on bare branches in spring. This plant is commonly called the ‘saucer magnolia' and is known for being comparatively easy to grow. It is relatively tolerant of wind and alkaline soils, growing up to 15m and a width of around 6m.

Site the bigger magnolias in prominent positions or with other trees in woodland garden situations, but be sure to give them plenty of room to extend their flowerbearing limbs. The emerging buds on the spring flowering varieties can be damaged during cold snaps, so avoid planting in frost pockets. Exposed, windy sites should be avoided too.

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