Magnolias make a magnificent sight

by Sally Gregson
THIS year our long-anticipated spring has been especially good following last year’s very hot summer.

The flowering cherries, crab-apples, and especially the magnolias, are such a wonderful sight. Huge crowns of pink and white flowers have dominated gardens large and small that are lucky enough to grow them, most especially the M. x soulangeana.

They have mostly escaped those wicked late spring frosts that usually reduce the flowers to brown mush. They are not plants for frosty gardens. Magnolias that flower a little later in the year stand a better chance of escaping the cold.

They are among the ‘oldest’ flowering plants on the planet. They were among the first to use flowers to attract the earliest insect pollinators in the days of giant ferns, cycads and gingkos. Their flowers form curious seed pods that are slightly odd and highly decorative.

Now, millions of years later, we are blessed with more than 210 species of magnolia, from all over the world. Many prefer acid soils, but some are quite happy to grow and flower in alkaline conditions provided they are not in sticky, boggy clay.

There’s M. wilsonii with pure white, cupped petals around rich red stamens. It grows to between 4-8 metres in height and width after about 20 years and enjoys alkaline soils. Its fragrant flowers will fill a spring garden with delicious scent and produce its strange seed pods in autumn.

Magnolia ‘Lois’ carries beautiful, well-scented primrose-yellow flowers a little later in the season – into late May and June and is quite tolerant of alkaline soils.

And the evergreen magnolia, M. grandiflora, is a magnificent plant. It’s happiest growing against a wall and will reach the bedroom windows in about five or six years. It produces huge, creamy white, heavily scented flowers scattered over the plant intermittently. It is moderately vigorous and repays careful pruning in June if it is to be kept to the wall.

A free-standing plant needs shelter from winds and extreme cold weather, but with plenty of sunshine should produce its huge cream flowers and citrus scent throughout August and September.

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