Hampton Gardener: The Heartbreak And Thrill Of Magnolias

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Many of my childhood memories revolve around plants and my father’s gardens. We had a small vegetable garden, but I clearly remember the corn that was as high as an elephant’s eye. I remember the plum trees and the annual ritual of pruning or cutting out the branches killed by the plum borers. There were the cannas in a bed running parallel to the driveway, and I remember dividing them every year as his friends would come over for the gifts of tubers that gave forever. There were the raspberries, the few attempts at strawberries and a rose or two, but he wasn’t much into flowering trees or shrubs, except for one. And it’s forever been a favorite of mine.Any day now this tree will flower, and now that I have a few growing at my house I’m so looking forward to that special day. The large fuzzy buds were set last summer, and since then they have been swelling and pregnant with that magical life packed inside. And on the day these buds open, a floral scent quite unlike any other will fill the air with an aroma that can be deliciously intoxicating. On that day, the magnolias will have started to bloom. If all is well in our little corner of the world, these trees can flower for weeks before the velvety thick petals begin to fall and cover the ground with a blanket of color and scent like at a wedding or royal coronation. But it doesn’t always work out quite like this. There are years when cold temperatures, rainy days and frosts can spoil the whole affair, making us wait yet another year. There have been years when the flowers have opened and are magnificent, only to be touched by a late April frost that burns and crisps the flowers beyond recognition, putting me into a deep, deep depression. I’m revived, though, by the thought that there’s always next year. And next year a cold April rain turns the flowers into an unspeakable mush. And there are the in-between years when the flowers open in all their glory, only to be blown to smithereens by a sudden wind.

But those years when these trees bloom and the bloom continues for days, followed by a pink, rose, white and yellow carpeting of the ground below … the bad years are quickly and easily forgotten. In these years we remember that there is nothing quite like the magnolia.

There are more than 130 species of magnolias, and about 25 of them can be grown on Long Island. The shapes vary, the sizes vary and to the surprise of some the flower colors vary as well. It’s also not widely known that a carefully planned magnolia garden can have one or more of these trees flowering from the third week in April until early June, with some repeating in the early fall. These trees are not quite so dramatic once their flowering time is over, though, as their bark is unremarkable and their fall colors are not going to make lasting memories. But they do have fruits that can add some note of interest late in the summer and early fall. For the most part, it’s that magnificent week or weeks of flowers that we’re after.

But here again there is a great deal of variety. Some magnolias have broad, floppy flowers that might be compared to a champagne glass, with others are more like a wineglass, snifter, or a fluted, tulip-shaped or cocktail glass in the case of the flat and open star magnolias.

Here are just a few of the magnolia types, but there are many more, so please do your homework and consider this only as a sampling. I’m also reminded of a few emails I exchanged with Roy Klehm (Songsparrow.com) about his magnolia offerings. He mentioned that his lawn is nonexistent, since his house is surrounded by thousands of magnolia seedlings. Now there’s a spring to imagine.

Magnolia acuminata, or the Cucumber Tree, grows to 60 feet with a spread of 60 feet and is fast growing with white flowers. Unlike other magnolias, this one is more likely to form a single stem or trunk, but its size may limit its placement to areas away from the shore and on larger properties. The common name refers to the pinkish, 3-inch fruits that show up in late summer and look like cucumbers.

Magnolia liliiflora, or the Lily Magnolia, growsonly 10 feet tall and 10 feet wide, with a rounded form and pink flowers. You’re not likely to find this one in the nurseries, but if you check the lineage (cultivars) of the magnolia you may want to buy, you may find that this one has been involved in the breeding.

Magnolia x loebneri, or the Loebner Magnolia, grows to about 25 feet tall and wide and has a rounded habit with white flowers. It’s actually a group of hybrids that resulted from the cross of two other magnolia varieties, kobus and stellata. This is one of the earliest to bloom, so if frosts are an issue at your location that would be a risk factor. On the other hand, it will grow in either sun or shade. The variety “Merrill,” or Dr. Merrill Star Magnolia, is a low-branched magnolia that’s one of the hardiest. It will grow to 30 feet tall and spread 30 feet with 3-inch white flowers.

Magnolia salicifolia, or the Anise Magnolia, grows to 30 feet tall, but it has foliage that is much narrower than with other magnolia varieties. The tree has a pyramidal shape and the bruised leaves and bark give off a lemon scent. The flowers are white, and three of the six flower petals are longer than the others. The fruits are rosy pink.

Magnolia sieboldii, or the Oyama Magnolia, grows and spreads to 12 feet and has a rounded form with white flowers. It grows best in a cool, semi-shaded spot and unlike other magnolias it can flower for up to two weeks with fragrant, cup-shaped flowers that are white with a noticeable red stamen for contrast.

Magnolia stellata, or the Star Magnolia, is probably the hardiest of the group, growing to 20 feet tall and up to 15 feet wide. While the most common color is white, the cultivar keiskei is purplish, and rosea is a pale pink and also known as the Pink Star Magnolia.

For yellow-flowering magnolias, look for Magnolia acuminata x dentudata and varieties like Elizabeth and Butterflies. For purples there’s M. liliiflora Dark Purple and Nigra, and keep in mind that there is a range of pinks, dark pinks, deep purples, reds and even reds that fade to purple.

But if you really want to get an eyeful … check out the collection at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where there are more than 40 varieties. The garden is famous for its magnolia breeding program.

When planting and siting your magnolia, it’s critical to do some planning and thinking. There are two elements that will doom this tree. One is wind and the second is frost. Find a sheltered spot on your property where the wind isn’t an issue. This may be difficult for those living near the water, but even in those cases a house or other structure can provide shelter from the wind. You can mitigate some wind issues by sticking to the shorter varieties of magnolias. You’ll never grow a 60-foot magnolia on the South Fork, but there are plenty of varieties that won’t grow over 15 feet and some as short as 10 feet. These trees are also soft-wooded and prone to crack and split in windy situations, so if wind is an issue look at varieties that have a more conical than spreading habit. Next, think about frost. You can’t stop frost, but there may be some areas of your property that are more prone to getting spring frosts than others. South-facing and higher spots are less prone to frosts than northern low spots. Keep growing.

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