Lady of the landscape

Depend on a magnolia tree to put on a lovely show, weather permitting


The magnolia has long been declared by both horticulturists and homeowners to be one of the, if not the, most elegant flowering tree for the spring landscape. And with the show they put on this year, it's hard to disagree.

With this past winter being such a mild one, it's been a bumper year for blossoms on this magnificent family of trees. One of the showiest magnolias is the saucer magnolia, also known as Magnolia x soulangiana. This is the tree with the huge purplish-pink blossoms that resemble tea cups in both size (the petals can extend outward 8 to 12-inches) and shape.

Their flower show is accentuated even more by the fact that the blossoms are borne on bare branches way before any competition with the tree's foliage begins to interfere.

The saucer magnolia is hardy in zones (4) 5 to 9. The 4 in the zone rating is in parentheses, because the tree itself is zone 4 hardy, but the flower buds are borderline. When we pass through a mild winter such as this year, the buds have no problem.

But, given a harsh winter or a late spring frost, these flower buds can die off before they open. Many homeowners who have this magnolia can attest to this disappointment over the years.

With a growth habit upward of 30 feet and a canopy spread nearly the same, this isn't a small ornamental tree. It'll thrive when given a sunny location and an organically rich, well-drained soil (although these beauties adapt well to many soil conditions) and an acidic pH in the range of 5.0 to 6.5.

Considered a moderate grower, you can figure it'll add about 12 inches per year until maturity. Low branches, a rounded outline, large leaves, big fuzzy buds, smooth gray bark for winter interest, a heavenly fragrance and generally pest-free lifestyle only add to its landscape value.

The drawback, and for many this is a moot point because of all its pluses: All those lovely, huge flower petals must fall, and when they do it can be quite a collection. So a word to the wise, locate the tree away from walks, driveways, pools and patios, because when the show is over, it's cleanup time.

Another common magnolia is the star magnolia or M. stellata, often grown as a multi-stemmed tree. It'll reach 12 to 15 feet in height and width, depending on cultivar chosen.

With very hardy flower buds, the star magnolia achieves a total zone 4 rating. Its flowers will also tolerate bursts of abnormally warm spring temperatures without passing quickly through their showy stage (referred to as heat-tolerant flowers). What's stunning about this species is the blossom resembles a multifaceted star, 12 to 18 narrow white or pink petals come together to form a flower that can measure up to 5 inches in diameter.

The star magnolia takes its time maturing, putting on about 6 inches a year. Locate it where it's protected from winter winds but in full sun. Because they bloom so early it's recommended you not plant magnolias along the southern side of a building.

This south-facing position is a very warm exposure throughout the winter, with the radiation of the sun's rays off the building. And when the days are prematurely warm, the flower buds absorb the heat and begin to swell, thinking spring has sprung. If temperatures subsequently plummet, the flower bud suffers.

Ranking third is Magnolia x loebneri or Loebner magnolia, which blooms about a week or two earlier than the saucer magnolia. Depending on the cultivar, its blossoms may resemble the star magnolia or look a wee bit like the flowering dogwood.

It's considered another medium-sized tree, with a height and width measuring in at 15 to 20 feet.

Next on our list is the sweetbay magnolia or M. virginiana. A mainstay in southern gardens, it can reach more than 60 feet high, but in the Northeast they grow to around 15 feet at most. The sweetbay magnolia garners a zone 5 to 9 hardiness, so be sure and plant in a protected location. Maryland hardiness zones range from 7b by the Atlantic Ocean to 5b on the state's westernmost edge.

When it comes to pruning magnolias, follow the same principle as shrubs; because they bloom early, prune them immediately after they flower. Fertilize now to help it replenish all those nutrients used in flowering and seed production, as well as what will be needed to manufacture food for the growing season.

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