In the Garden:
New England
May, 2002
Regional Report

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The showy flowers of star magnolia are a stellar addition to the landscape!

Star Magnolia -- A Stellar Shrub

There's something especially striking about shrubs and trees that produce flowers in late winter or early spring, before their leaves emerge. Perhaps it's because flowers on otherwise bare branches seem more vulnerable without the protection of foliage. Or maybe it's the optimism they inspire: Yes, spring is right around the corner. The botanical term for plants that produce flowers before leaves is "precocious" -- a word that brings to my mind the image of a delightful, engaging (and perhaps a little defiant) child.

Early Bloomers
Several shrubs, including forsythia, winter honeysuckle, and redbud, put on their flower show in early spring, providing welcome signs of life and color after the long winter. Flowers are produced in profusion, as though swarms of colorful insects have perched on the branches. One of my favorite early-bloomers is star magnolia, Magnolia stellata.

Cousin to the saucer magnolia of the south, M. stellata is the hardiest of the magnolias. Although some references list its hardiness as USDA Zones 5 to 8, it can survive in cooler regions if planted in a protected place. True to its name, the flowers are star-like, with numerous narrow white or light-colored petals (technically, tepals, since the petals and sepals appear similar) radiating from the center.

Star magnolia prefers a moist, deep, slightly acidic, organically rich soil, in full sun to light shade. A deciduous shrub or small, multi-stemmed tree, star magnolia is slow-growing, eventually reaching a height of 15 to 20 feet, with a spread of 10 to 15 feet, when mature.

Choosing a Planting Site
Early-flowering plants are at the mercy of changeable spring weather in the Northeast, and star magnolia is no exception. It is best situated in areas where it won't receive any excessive or artificial warming in spring -- warming that can encourage flowers to open early, when they are susceptible to late frosts.

For example, I'd avoid planting this magnolia on the south side of my house, where the reflected light and warm microclimate cause daffodils to bloom about two weeks earlier than those planted in other parts of the yard. A better spot would be on the east side, still in full sun but, with less reflected heat and light, where the plant is less likely to flower prematurely. This eastern location would also provide protection from our chilling western winds.

The flowers of the star magnolia are most striking when set against a dark background –- for example, a brick wall or an evergreen hedge. Choose a spot where you'll be able to enjoy its flowers' delicate aroma.

Cultivars

'Centennial' -- Large flowers tinged with pink. Vigorous and cold hardy. Received the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Gold Medal award in 1977.

'Rosea' (Pink Star Magnolia) -- Buds are pink, fading to white flowers.

'Royal Star' -- Large, fragrant, white double flowers.

'Waterlily' -- Very fragrant pink buds open to white flowers; late-flowering.

Loebner magnolia (Magnolia x loebneri) – Hardier (rated to USDA Zone 4), faster growing, and larger than M. stellata.

Sustainable Plants
The University of Rhode Island has placed star magnolia on its list of "sustainable plants." These are plants that require less maintenance and fewer resources than comparable plants. Star magnolia has few insect and disease problems, and, once established, needs little in the way of supplemental water and fertilizer. It is also considered non-invasive -- an important consideration in the URI rating system.


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