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Those “Other” Magnolias
by Scott Beuerlein - posted 02/27/18

‘Yellow Bird’ magnolia is my personal favorite. The abundant and bright flowers in the spring are usually late enough to be unaffected by late frosts.


There are three reasons people don’t plant magnolias anymore: 1) Everybody assumes “magnolia” means only the saucer magnolias (Magnolia x soulangeana) they remember from their youth, which, 2) ate all of Grandma’s front yard, and 3) had its flowers blasted every third year by a frost. Now, listen to me carefully: These reasons are dumb.

First, not every yard is a postage stamp in need of a Lilliputian tree, so let’s stop pretending that they are. And a drop dead gorgeous floral display two years out of three already beats a river birch. In fact, it is on par with the vaunted yellowwood, which only blooms every other year. For those without a calculator, this is also two out of three if you start the count on a good year, but only one of three if you don’t. And, yet, that math works just fine for every snooty horticulturist I know. They all slobber over yellowwoods (and so should you). But all of us should also slobber all over saucer magnolias. For goodness sake, plant them if you have the space. But, if you legitimately haven’t got the room, or if you’re stubborn, you have got some fantastic magnolia options – the “other” magnolias.
 

Left: The flower of Ashe’s magnolia is almost identical to M. macrophylla. It’s as pretty as any flower out there as it opens. As big as a serving bowl, its lemony fragrance will make your day. Right: Fall color comes in browns and golds for most magnolias, but this should not be underrated for beauty.

 


The leaves of the umbrella magnolia aren’t as large as the bigleaf magnolia, but they can create a tropical sense of lushness in the landscape. Their flowers are incredibly beautiful, if somewhat malodorous.

Bigleaf-Type Magnolias
Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) lives up to its name. The big floppy leaves can get up to 3 feet long and 18 inches wide. They are the biggest single leaf in the temperate forest. When they shed their leaves in the fall, you can bet every kid will be carrying one around. The flowers are equally fascinating. Fragrant and massive (12 to 18 inches wide), they appear sporadically over a month or so of spring. In full sun, they’ll grow low and wide, maybe 40 feet high by 40 feet wide, but in shade they stay trim and slim as they stretch for the sun. In nature, their range extends from Louisiana to New York. They are USDA Zone 5 hardy. Woefully underrepresented in nurseries, they are definitely worthy of a persistent search.

Ashe’s magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla subsp. ashei) is a smaller growing, shrubby subspecies of the bigleaf, maybe reaching half the size of its cousin. Its native range is restricted to the panhandle of Florida, but it too is USDA Zone 5 hardy. Leaves and flowers are a bit smaller, befitting its diminutive size, but very much worth the price of admission.

Umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) is another native bigleaf type that is good for naturalizing. Occasionally you see it for sale. It’s a USDA Zone hardier than M. macrophylla, but I like bigleafs and Ashe’s magnolias better. Umbrella magnolia is a scruffier tree, often with multiple suckering stems, and flowers that, although beautiful, are malodorous. It grows to 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide.
 

Left: ‘Butterflies’ magnolia has become relatively popular due to its abundant, bright yellow flowers. Right: The height and grandeur of cucumber magnolias is often surprising to those who know only common landscape magnolias.


Yellow-Blooming Magnolias
Cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) is a native, tall, narrow species that can legitimately be mistaken for an oak from even a short distance. They carry themselves with that exact same stately grandeur. You can see in them the family resemblance between magnolias and tulip poplars. The National Champion, which can be found in Stark County, Ohio, is 96 feet tall, 80 feet wide, and 299 inches in circumference. As magnolias go, their flowers aren’t much to look at. Relatively small, a little drab, and 30 feet up in a tree, this matters little. With a tree this grand, flowers aren’t that important. Except in this case, they are for a surprising reason: This species, and its rarer, little brother, M. acuminata subsp. subcordata, when bred with other species – many of them Asian in origin – provides the yellow blooms of such spectacular cultivars as ‘Butterflies’, ‘Daybreak’, ‘Elizabeth’, ‘Goldfinch’, ‘Gold Star’, ‘Solar Flare’, ‘Sunburst’, ‘Yellow Bird’, and many others. These are all wonderful, relatively new additions to the magnolia menu that sparkle in the spring landscape. Moreover, the cucumber magnolia parentage often produces an upright tree that fits very well in almost any landscape. They bloom later, enough so that frost seldom blasts their blooms. Easy to move and grow, these should be plopped right down in that special place in the garden.

Sweetbay magnolia flowers bloom sporadically for four to six weeks in the spring. Their lemony fragrance is fantastic. Later in the summer come the fruits, which are almost as showy.


Sweetbay and Southern Magnolias
These are by no means rare or difficult to find, but there are some interesting variations to know for northern gardeners. The southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) is listed as USDA Zone 6 hardy, but only some are reliably so. Look for cultivars such as, ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’, ‘D.D. Blanchard’, ‘Edith Bogue’, and ‘Kay Paris’, and provide a sheltered location if you can. Southern magnolias are capable of living almost anywhere and in deep shade.

The variation in sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana) is surprising, and this offers much potential to select one perfect for your garden. For instance, ‘Henry Hicks’, ‘Green Shadow’, and ‘Northern Belle’ are all upright, tall, and evergreen reaching up to maybe 30 feet in gardens. Most of the other selections, and virtually all of them sold as the species, will be shrubbier and deciduous. The fall color – a collage of yellows, golds, and browns – is uniquely beautiful.

So hunt down some of these plants. Grow them. Enjoy them. Easy and beautiful all year, they offer so much.

 

 

A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Scott Beuerlein.

 


Scott Beuerlein is a horticulturist at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. He is the current chair of the Boone County Arboretum Collections Committee and the past chair of Taking Root and the Cincinnati Flower Growers Association. He is an ONLA Certified Landscape Technician and an ISA Certified Arborist. Contact him at Scott.beuerlein@cincinnatizoo.org.