There’s a small, unassuming house on a fairly busy stretch of road near where I live. Most of the year I merely glance at the garden as I drive past, but in late winter it becomes the best-dressed house on the block. Its rise in status is due to the magnolia blooming in the front yard.
This magnolia is one of the newer large-flowering varieties and it is truly spectacular with large-petalled blooms. The tree looks as if a flock of pink and white birds has just alighted in its branches. I savour every minute of its flowering, from the appearance of the first large floppy pink petal to the sad day the wind blows the last flowers from the tree and it retreats into green leafiness.
Magnolia varieties that stop traffic include ‘Holland Red’, ‘Felix’, ‘Rustic Rubra’, ‘Vulcan’ and ‘Star Wars’. These varieties have deep to pale pink flowers in late winter or early spring. They look striking as they are produced on bare branches with the leaves opening as the flowers finish.
Most of the new large flowered magnolia varieties begin to bloom when the tree is just a few years old and several metres high. Mature specimens can reach 3-5m high. This early flowering habit is to be welcomed as magnolias popular in days gone by could take many years to bloom.
Star and fairy magnolias
Also worth looking out for is the star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), which forms a bushy plant 2m high and wide. The bush is smothered with clusters of small, starry white flowers in spring and suits a small space.
There are also small evergreen magnolias that suit smaller spaces or hedging. These are being sold as fairy magnolias and are a complicated hybrid between the port wine magnolia (Magnolia figo syn. Michelia figo) and other species magnolia (M. doltsopa and M. yunnanensis). The fairy magnolia is an ideal choice for an evergreen flowering hedge with pink or white flowering forms now widely available.
Magnolias need deep rich soil, shelter from hot sun and strong westerly winds and grow best in cool to temperate regions. Deciduous magnolias need little pruning – indeed pruning can ruin their natural form.
Magnolias can be a magnet for possums, which feed on the buds and new growth. If you have a magnolia that hasn’t flowered it may be that pesky possums have eaten the buds. Using a metal or plastic collar around the trunk can prevent access by the possum from the ground. If encasing the trunk of a tree, check and adjust it regularly to ensure that the collar hasn’t become tight so it is being overgrown by the expanding trunk and isn’t harbouring pests between the collar and the trunk.
Covering the plant at night to prevent the possum reaching the branches can help preserve the blooms. Once the flowers have opened in late winter or early spring, the tree should be safe from possum attack until next year.
Pictured: Magnolia x soulangeana