Spring Flowers; Magnolia Magic

By Andy McIndoe

The cold spring has had one advantage in the central south of England: it has delayed many of our early spring flowers, magnolias among them.  I was down in Cornwall, in south west England a couple of weeks ago, visiting gardens famous for our most exotic flowering shrubs and spring flowers.  They had an earlier start, and paid the price for it as cold winds and frosts wreaked havoc with those delicate blooms. Here a few warm days and the magnificent display explodes; let’s hope the frosts stay away.


Magnolias are perhaps the most magnificent hardy trees and shrubs. Their flowers are not of this world as they erupt from the bare branches of deciduous varieties before the leaves appear.  But some care is needed in selection as many are too large for the average garden. Also some tree magnolias take several years to flower, so be patient.

When we first moved to a larger garden I longed for Magnolia campbellii. That is the magnificent Himalayan tree magnolia with huge blooms on the bare branches in spring.  In the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, close to where I live in Hampshire, England there are some magnificent specimens which looked stunning when I visited the other day.

In my own garden I was lucky enough to plant Magnolia ‘Star Wars’, which is a hybrid of Magnolia campbellii and Magnolia x liliflora and this is just coming into bloom at the time of writing. It flowers from an early age but with huge deep pink flowers.  Although smaller than its tree parent it has still made a very large shrub and is too large for most gardens.

Magnolia 'Star Wars' 2

The best Magnolia for the average garden is undoubtedly Magnolia stellata.  A slow growing shrub with white flowers from Japan it forms a compact, broad shrub, eventually reaching 2.4metres, 8ft in height, but very slowly.  It grows on any reasonable soil and is quite happy on alkaline soils including chalk. The winter buds on the bare branches are grey and hairy; attractive in their own right, just like large “pussy willows”.   The fragrant white flowers have narrow petals, rounded at the tips. Even though the white flowers usually bloom in early spring they are more weather resistant than most other varieties.  Magnolia stellata ‘Waterlily’ is the best known variety with large white flowers that open gracefully with delicately incurved petals.

The foliage of Magnolia stellata is plain light green, not unpleasant but hardly striking.  Why not plant one of the less vigorous large-flowered clematis to grow up through it and give you another season of interest?  A friend of mine has planted Clematis ‘Pistacio’ to grow through hers.  The large greenish-white blooms sit on the branches in summer like another crop of magnolia flowers.

Magnolia x loebneri is a hybrid of M. stellata with M. kobus.  It is usually grown as a large shrub even though it can be trained as a small standard tree. It too flowers freely from an early age.  The flowers are fragrant with long strap-like petals, a more open and starry bloom than M. stellata.  It is a very easy Magnolia to grow and thrives on any soil including chalk.  ‘Leonard Messel’ is the best-known variety with pale lilac-pink flowers.

Magnolia salicifolia is similar in flower to Magnolia stellata and Magnolia x loebneri.  I saw the variety ‘Kewensis’ in full bloom on my visit to the gardens the other day.  The display was quite breathtaking; like a vast flock of doves reflecting the spring sunlight against a dark background of sombre evergreens.

Magnolia x soulangeana is everyone’s idea of the typical magnolia. Often referred to as the “Tulip tree”, this is the magnolia with large pointed buds, like candle light bulbs. The glorious goblet-shaped blooms are creamy white flushed purple at the base. It is a wide spreading shrub with character and an Oriental air.  As popular as Magnolia x soulangeana is, it is not recommended for chalk but seems to survive. The good news is that Magnolia x soulangeana loves clay soils and does not mind damp conditions.

Magnolia ‘Susan’ is one of the spring flowers that's still to come in my garden, as yet the buds show little signs of movement. Although the flowers are small and slender compared to some other magnolias it is one of my favourites for its vivid cerise, purple colour. It is upright in habit and grows to a similar size as Magnolia stellata so is ideal for the smaller garden.  It is lovely planted with Lunaria annua, honesty and the new red leaves of Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’. I also have it planted against the arching stems and profuse light orange flowers of Berberis stenophylla. This is what I call a “risky” colour combination, but love it.

On a practical note i should say that magnolias need no pruning.  If pruning is done to control size, care is needed not to ruin the shape and produce an ugly plant.  The larger growing magnolias, such as Magnolia x soulangeana respond to pruning by producing vigorous upright growth which is undesirable.  Selective removal of whole branches is better than cutting half way.

Once spring is over the glorious evergreen varieties of Magnolia grandiflora are still to come. The large, glossy, leathery leaves of Magnolia grandiflora look good throughout the year and the enormous, lemon- scented creamy, waxy Magnolia grandiflora flowers delight in mid to late summer. Magnolia grandiflora can take several years to flower. Choose the named Magnolia grandiflora variety ‘Exmouth’, easy to grow and free flowering at an early age. The evergreen Magnolias are excellent grown as wall shrubs, their architectural form and bold foliage balance heavy masonry.


Spring Flowers, White Flowers, Pink Flowers and Magnolias Listed:  Magnolia campbellii, Magnolia x liliflora, Magnolia stellata, Magnolia grandiflora, Magnolia salicifolia, Lunaria annua, Magnolia x loebneri, M. stellata, Magnolia x soulangeana

Andy McIndoe

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