When people ask me what my favourite season is I really struggle as there’s lots of reasons to love every season, they each have merit. Summer, hazy cool dawns with a promise of the days heat, the sleepy churr of crickets in the grass. Sometimes when its been dry for weeks you can smell rain from miles away.
Then there’s autumn, suddenly the garden wakes up once more after hanging in summers sleepy stasis. The paths are decorated with dew diamond encrusted silken threads. Fruit hangs the boughs heavy, dragging them down so little hands can grasp the rosy treats and acid surprises of “not quite ready!”
Winter, the wind so cold it feels like ice shards in your lungs, your fingers freezing and burning all at once. Sometimes if were lucky, waking up to that muffled, soft, pristine world, familiar landmarks disappeared under a downy blanket.
Then there’s Spring, the time of rebirth! Glowing lime tendrils erupting from the earth. Climbing at an almost visible, supernatural rate. Everything trying to do everything all at a frightening pace, it all has to happen Now! Now! Now!
Even in this clamour though there are some plants that know that they don’t have to rush. They will live for decades so they can take their leisurely time. Some will even wait for up to 30 years before they even consider flowering!
Best viewed, if possible, framed against a perfect blue sky, Magnolias have approximately 240 species. Mans interventions has of course increased the diversity of this ancient family by crossing species that without our intervention may never have met.
Magnolias were the very first, we think, flowering plant. Certainly they are surviving example of fossilised flowers from 20 million years ago in the case of M. acuminata. Now found growing in the Eastern United States and Southern Ontario in Canada this dinosaur tree evolved before bees even existed.
What about trees that you might encounter now though?
Aka :Campbell’s magnolia
Native to sheltered valleys in the Himalaya from eastern Nepal, Sikkim and Assam, India, east to southwestern China (southern Xizang, Yunnan, southern Sichuan) and south to northern Myanmar.
This example is growing at Hole park in Kent and has been placed perfectly in the Dell so the flowers can be admired from the rise above it. It usually flowers in early March so sadly some years its beautiful blooms are marred by frost but when it does flower its beauty is unrivalled! Reaching 115 – 131 ft (35 – 40M) when fully grown this is not a tree for your average garden and it can take up to 30 years to flower so you really are planting for the next generation.
Of Garden Origin (Ian Baldick, New Zealand)
M. campbellii ‘Lanarth’ x M. liliiflora
Sporting the Huge flowers distinctive of its parent campbellii it isn’t however such a complete towering giant! It will be a bit much though for a lot of gardens reaching up to 27ft (8M). The flowers, which have a long season, are large cup shaped and a rich deep rosy purple.
Of Garden origin (Jury Hybrid, New Zealand)
M. liliiflora x M. ‘Mark Jury’
Moving away from the giant campbelli hybrids now, a relatively small tree, reaching 20ft (6M) in 10-15 years, making it a feasible choice for the average garden. It has the distinct advantage of being late flowering often starting just as everything else is finishing. Perfect if your garden is prone to late frosts
Magnolia ‘Milky Way’
Of Garden origin (Jury Hybrid, New Zealand)
M ‘Mark Jury’ x M. soulangeana ‘Lennei Alba’
This is a distinctly larger tree reaching 33ft (10M) but well worth it if you have the space. It flowers at a very young age, unusual for any Magnolia, and has wonderful almost pure white flowers, gently suffused with pink at the base. One of the bonuses with choosing a white flowered Magnolia will become apparent on clear starlit nights. As the name suggests looking up at the flowers they will shine in the darkness giving the impression that you’re looking at the milky way. Early flowering in the season can start at the end of March and continue into April.
Magnolia x soulangeana ‘Black Tulip’
Of Garden Origin (Hybrid, New zealand )
Magnolia ‘Vulcan’ x Magnolia ‘Iolanthe’
One of the best known of the red magnolias to originate in the late 90’s and it took the market by storm! Even now its still classed as one of the most reliable in shape, form and colour. Certainly a handsome addition for any garden. Reaching just 15 to 20 ft (5-6M) its certainly a more reasonable size for the average domestic garden.
Magnolia stellata ‘Water lily’
Of Garden Origin (UK)
Also known as Star Magnolia
Not to be mistaken for the form ‘Waterlily’ (one word) available in the USA the UK selected form of stellata has pure white flowers with no hint of pink and is much smaller. Reaching only 6 to 8 ft in 15 years as opposed to the 20ft of the American version, an important distinction to make when selecting your tree!
Magnolia stellata originated in japan and the wild form is closely related to Magnolia kobus, the Kobushi magnolia. In fact it was only accepted as a separate species, not just a form, in 1998. In the wild species flower colours are affected by temperature and growing conditions. The selected forms give better uniformity.
From the point of view of modern gardens with their limited space this is probably the perfect Magnolia, If kept well fed and watered it can even happily thrive in a pot.
There are also several Hybrids available, Magnolia × loebneri = Magnolia kobus × Magnolia stellata. which originated mainly at Nymans in Sussex which are worth mentioning but are distinctly larger than the stellata selections.
Magnolia grandiflora x virginiana ‘Freeman’
Of Garden Origin (O. M. Freeman of the United States National Arboretum)
Unlike all of the Magnolias I have talked about so far the M. grandiflora and its crosses are designed to throw a curve ball into everything you thought you knew about Magnolias!
These originate in the Coastal Plain of the south eastern United States from North Carolina to central Florida and west to eastern Texas. Its common name is the bull-bay.
Work on this species by Mr Freeman was concentrated in the 1930s and the vast majority of the M. grandifloras we see in the UK are in fact these hybrids.
Not fully hardy in the way the Chinese and Japanese species are you will often see these monsters planted up against the wall of stately homes to protect them from the intense cold of English winters. They reach apporox 15ft tall and their flowering periods continues throughout the summer, the trees are evergreen rather than deciduous.
One of my favourite sources when researching trees is always the Arnoldia Arboretum. The have so many brilliant papers online and this is such a great resource! This paper, written by Stephen A. Sponberg, deal with some very old hybrids and gives an excellent history to explain how we got to todays modern trees.
If you would like to read more about some of the Jury’s Hybrids from New Zealand and red flowered crosses there is a marvellous article written by Vaughan Gallavan, Head gardener at Sherwood, near Exeter in Devon.
Also another lovely article written by Elizabeth Petersen, who writes for the garden industry and teaches SAT/ACT test prep at http://www.satpreppdx.com. I’m slightly confused by her description of ‘Ruth’ and can only assume that once again the American market has doubled up on named varieties or that there is a small slip in the authors identification?
Gardens to visit – Booking may be essential
(Please use your discretion within current restrictions, Keep gardens staff and patrons safe!)
Caerhays Castle, Saint Austell PL26 6LY. caerhays.co.uk
Windsor great park, Saville Gardens, TW20 0UJ The Savill Garden | Britain’s Finest Ornamental Garden | Windsor Great Park
Mapperton House, Dorset DT8 3NR. mapperton.com
Batsford Arboretum, Gloucestershire GL56 9AD. batsarb.co.uk
Hole Park, Rolvenden, Kent,TN17 4JA Hole Park Gardens
Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire SO51 0QA. hilliergardens.org.uk
Borde Hill Garden, West Sussex RH16 1XP. bordehill.co.uk
RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey, GU23 6QB RHS Garden Wisley : Days and events in Surrey / RHS Gardening
Nymans, west sussex
Bickling estate, Norfolk
Bodnant Garden, wales