Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Trees, Shrubs, & Vines
by Eliot Tozer
Magnolia liliflora 'Nigra' in dappled sunshine
When a deciduous magnolia blooms, everyone stops to admire. Its blossoms, on bare branches, are showy and often fragrant. But on some April mornings, the fragrant rose-pink flower buds on 'Big Dude' (a cross between M. soulangiana 'Wada's Picture' and M. sprengeri 'Diva') at the home of Dick Figlar in Pomona, New York, are swathed in wool socks, coddled against anticipated cold. No beauty, and less fragrance.
Not that the tree itself is tender: 'Big Dude' has survived temperatures as low as -29°F. But when weather forecasters predict widely scattered frost, Figlar doesn't want to lose what he considers a fabulous blossom. However, loss of magnolia flowers to late frosts has led some people to call them the one-day flower.
"Still," says Figlar, "more people are discovering that magnolias are not necessarily tender plants. Some thrive as far north as USDA Hardiness Zone 3. And a few new hybrids bloom so late in spring they are rarely hit by frost." He grows 35 varieties -- 20 of which flourish -- at his home in zone 6. Between April 1 and early fall, some magnolias are always in bloom. (At his second home, in South Carolina, he grows more than a hundred additional kinds.)
Distinctive Flowers, Fragrance, and Foliage Size
Like most plant enthusiasts, Figlar is much taken by his favorite plant's flowers. M. sargentiana robusta, for example, flaunts flowers so huge -- up to 14-inches across -- their stems can't support them. M. campbellii mollicomata 'Lanarth' displays spectacular flowers of violet-red fading to purple; British gardeners went wild over it in 1943 when it flowered. "It's probably the most stunning magnolia ever found," Figlar says.
Color. Recently, yellow magnolias have taken this country by storm. "Everyone who raises rhododendrons wants a yellow magnolia," Figlar says. One of the first yellows available and still the best known is the fragrant 'Elizabeth' (a cross between M. acuminata and M. denudata). Another is 'Butterflies', a cross of M. acuminata and M. denudata 'Sawada's Cream'. Its flowers are a deeper yellow than those of 'Elizabeth', and it's very cold-hardy.
Still, Figlar prefers the yellow forms of the cucumber tree (M. acuminata) to the hybrids. Indeed, he selected one variety, 'Skylands Best', and registered it with The Magnolia Society.
Shape. He also finds the shape of the flowers engaging. Blooms on M. soulangiana, a cross between M. denudata and M. liliiflora and the most popular magnolia in the North, have a pleasing saucer shape. The flowers of whiteleaf (M. hypoleuca) are cup shaped. Star magnolia (M. stellata) produces up to 30 petal-like tepals that radiate outward from the flower center like the rays of a star. In 1977, the variety 'Centennial' won the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's gold medal award.
Scent. Figlar is particularly sensitive to magnolias' fragrance. He's planted the sweet bay magnolia (M. virginiana) beside his patio not only because it offers filtered shade but also because it releases a strong lemon scent. And the crushed leaves and stems of anise magnolia (M. salicifolia) smell like, well, anise.
Foliage. He is even more pleased by the foliage. Many trees have huge leaves -- some over 2 feet long -- or shiny ones that give a lush, tropical look. Leaves on the sweet bay and bigleaf (M. macrophylla) have silvery undersides that shimmer in the wind.