Magnolias that weather the winter

Many varieties don't mind cold, produce big, beautiful flowers

In The Garden

September 04, 2005|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Magnolias, those big-bloomed belles, have long had a reputation in Maryland as being a bit like trophy wives: high maintenance. Conventional wisdom held that even with babying, they were apt to turn up their antebellum toes in a harsh Maryland winter. But like a lot of conventional wisdom, it's superficial. Sure, the old-fashioned Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), which when happy can grow 50 feet tall, can be fussy. But there are many magnolias that are not only blessed with buxom blooms but are tough too.

"We have about 500 magnolia cultivars in our nursery and garden," says Roger Gossler, owner of Gossler Farms Nursery in Springfield, Ore. "And 86 in our catalog. About 90 percent of those do well in Maryland."

Among them, Star magnolias (Magnolia stellata), are standouts, especially for smaller yards and gardens. All are hardy to Zone 5. (We're Zone 7).

"And even if blooms get hit with frost, new buds will come out later. They bloom for us for 1 1/2 months," says Gossler.

They're also versatile. Depending on variety, Stars range from large shrubs to small trees.

"Their size enables them to fit into a landscape in a multitude of ways," says Steve VanderWoude, director of color choice shrubs for Spring Meadow Nursery in Grand Haven, Mich. "They can integrate into a mixed border, but they can also be used on their own."

Purples to yellows

Star magnolias, many of whose hybrids were developed by the NationalArboretum in Washington, are the earliest-blooming magnolias. They usually flower right on the heels of forsythia, opening a show-of-lights tree full of big, satin-petaled blooms on bare branches. Bloom colors range from the deep purplish red of Magnolia 'Ann' and the purplish pink of M. 'Galaxy' to the multipetaled mauve-and-cream of M. 'Centennial' and the fragrant, pink-budded white flowers of M. 'Waterlily.' In late spring, M. 'Susan' is filled with voluptuous magenta and cream blooms; in fall, its foliage is great for small places.

"They're very fragrant and very precocious," says Roy Klehm, owner of Klehm's Song Sparrow Nursery in Avalon, Wis. "A little 18-inch plant will bloom."

These magnolias, which have an open growing habit, can also act as a trellis for summer-blooming perennial vines. (But be sure the vines aren't chokehold thugs).

"It's fun to climb a clematis through them," says VanderWoude. "It's a whole new set of blooms later in the season, and people go, 'Wow! What's that?' "

Many other magnolia varieties were produced by skilled amateurs.

"Phil Savage was a World War II pilot who bred magnolias as a hobby," saysKlehm. "He really came up with the yellow bloom, and was working on clear pinks at end of his life."

Among the yellow magnolias, M. 'Elizabeth,' which has buttercup-colored blooms that mellow to palest peach blush, and M. 'Butterflies,' whose butter yellow remains bright until petals drop, are favorites.

Other hardy magnolia options were born of our native M. virginiana, also known as sweet bay or swamp magnolia. While it's normally found along riverbanks and likes wet feet, it's also highly adaptable to drier soils. And, unlike most Star magnolias, it's fragrant. Very hardy, it's the parent of a number of lovely cultivars, including M. virginiana 'Moonglow' (aka 'Jim Wilson'), which has dark semi-evergreen leaves and creamy lemon-scented flowers in late spring and M. 'Henry Hicks,' which after its initial burst of spring bloom produces white flowers sporadically all summer.

Some hardy magnolias are accidents of nature that have been recognized and cultivated by astute gardeners. M. grandiflora 'Edith Bogue' is the offspring of a Southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) belonging to Edith Bogue of New Jersey. Its parent was the sole survivor of her collection of M. grandifloras after a harsh winter. Like its tough ancestor, evergreen M. 'Edith Bogue' is hardy to Zone 5.


Magnolias like full sun or part shade. With the exception of Swamp magnolia hybrids, all need good drainage.

"When you plant, elevate about one-third of the rootball and mound the soil up to it," says VanderWoude. "When they are buried too deep, they don't get enough aeration and it kills the trees."

Mulch to keep sufficient moisture to roots, which are fairly shallow and can dry out. And don't dig around them a lot.

"You don't want to grow annuals under them because you don't want to disturb the roots every year," says Gossler. "But occasionally is fine. We have climbing hydrangea growing up ours."


Gossler Farms Nursery

1200 Weaver Road

Springfield, OR 97478


Spring Meadow Nursery Inc.

12601 120th Ave.

Grand Haven, MI 49417-9621


Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery

13101 East Rye Road

Avalon, WI 53505


Triple Oaks Nursery and Herb Garden

P.O. Box 385

2359 S. Delsea Drive

Franklinville, NJ 08322


Carroll Gardens

444 E. Main St., P.O. Box 310

Westminster, MD 21157


Simonds Nursery Inc.

1141 Berrymans Lane

Reistertown, MD 21136


Behnke Nurseries

11300 Baltimore Ave.

Beltsville, MD 20705


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