Magnolias beyond the pale... pink, white, rose and yellow

Spring bloomers hog the spotlight

Saucer magnolia (M. soulangiana) and star magnolia (M. stellata) are so well known that some people think that's all there is. Yet the genus Magnolia is far more grand -- 125 species. So enjoy the saucers and stars (photos below) if you have them, but if you're just now thinking about planting a magnolia, keep your options open for:

Sweet  bay magnolia (M. virginiana) Zone 5. Later blooming than the saucer clan by several weeks.  Never smothered in flowers but makes up for it by tending to bloom sporadically all summer. All magnolias are at least a little fragrant but this one is especially so. 15' x 15' but can be 3 or 4 times larger in the warmer parts of its range. Likes constantly moist well drained soil.

White bark magnolia (M. obovata) Zone 5. 'Lydia' is a nice silvery-bark selection of this later blooming tree (2-3 weeks after the saucers). Big white flowers, purple feathery stamens.

Umbrella magnolia (M. tripetala) Zone 5. Rangy shrub-like tree that can lend an exotic air to a yard because of its large leaves clustered toward the ends of the branches. Flowers are big, too. It needs plenty of room because it likes to branch low and wide.

Bigleaf magnolia (M. macrophylla) Zone 4. Truly tropical in appearance and certainly not for everyone.* Leaves are 24" long or longer and the tree is not only big but fast growing. It's like a banana tree for temperate zones. Flowers can be impressive, especially on a variety like 'Whopper' - gigantic cream flowers with maroon splotches at the base of inner petals. It's a tough tree to live under at raking time, dropping foliage like sheets of newsprint.
(Take a look -- so big it needs its own page!)
*We watched one frustrated homeowner chop his 30' tree down one fall. In the spring it suckered from the stump and was a multi-trunk 10' beast by summer's end. The owner solved the problem by selling and moving; the new owners bulldozed that part of the yard and built an addition over the tree's location.

Cucumbertree (M. acuminata) Zone 4. A big (50' or more), fast tree that's pyramidal when young. The flowers are greenish, later than saucer types and are often lost in the big leaves. So why include it? Because it's the source of the large-flowered yellow magnolias such as 'Elizabeth' and 'Yellow Bird' that gardeners drool over.

Oyama magnolia (M. sieboldii) Zone 6. Darn it, the magnolia we'd love for our own zone 5 yard -- a 15' shrubby tree with flowers that hang, so you walk under the branches and look up into exquisite cream petals and dark purple stamens in June. We keep hoping, as we hear now and then that someone is making crosses for greater hardiness.

Evergreen magnolia, Southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) Zone 7. Hardier varieties are touted now and then and we have tried a few in sheltered zone 6a, never with any success. We'll leave this beauty to the South -- we have plenty of others to try.


Beautiful plants in this genus with a great diversity of characteristics inspire plantspeople to get a little carried away. Michael Dirr writes:

Breeders...have contributed new hybrids that, though magnificent, overwhelm the average gardener. Too many... With the above stated, I accept the blame for growing thousands of Magnolia seedlings over my career. Most were trash and treated as same. A few good ones surfaced."

The star magnolia (M. stellata, zone 4) has been crossed with many other species, and can be found in pink, white and intermediate colors. Both of these are star magnolia hybrids.

MagnolLtYlw6351.jpg MagnoStelFl5835.jpg





In most cases, the star magnolia's low branched, dense-shrubby form isn't must changed by hybridizing, but the trees may be bigger. Hybrids such as 'Merrill' (M. x loebneri) might be over 25' tall while the star usually stays under 20'.


The lily magnolia (M. liliiflora) is a small, shrubby Zone 6 species with dark purple flowers. Crossed with the Yulan magnolia (M. denudata) it gave us the  zone 5 saucer magnolias (M. x soulangiana). Breeders bring out that purple in varieties such as 'Lennei', 'Purple and White' and 'Deep Purple Dream'. These colors are better if the tree is growing where springs are cool but frost free. Heat drains the color, and frost blights the bloom.

MagnolNigr3387.jpg   MagnoNigrFl8114.jpg









There are so many yellows your head may spin when you set out to make a choice. Many are so similar that one or the other breeder with nearly identical introductions ought to have done the honorable thing and stood down, taking a redundant plant with him. If you think of magnolia as a small tree, or slow, the yellows will surprise you. They don't hide their M. acuminata big, fast genes. Can you already see the bigness and oval form in this young yellow magnolia?