Magnolia trees come in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and flowering types, and many of them are perfect for growing in small, urban gardens.
This is an ancient genus within the plant world, believed to be among the earliest known flowering plants. Magnolias evolved before bees and other flying insects, and to this day, rely on beetles for pollination. Although they don’t produce any nectar, the flowers make loads of pollen which is a rich source of protein for birds, beetles, and other pollinators.
Magnolia trees often have a semi-bushy growth habit with low branching and a rounded canopy. Many varieties form flower buds in late summer the year prior to blooming and slowly develop them as fuzzy “pods” at the tips of branches. Early blooming varieties flower around March before the foliage emerges, which makes them especially dramatic looking. A heavy spring storm or series of warm, windy days can shorten the length of bloom time and shatter the petals to the ground—even in the most ideal conditions, the flowering period is glorious, yet fleeting.
Although they will flower best in full sun, some may benefit from light, afternoon shade. Magnolias thrive in slightly acidic, well-drained soil and have moderate to light watering needs; occasional summer watering can help prevent summer leaf scorch and promote larger blossoms. Cold hardiness varies by type, but generally ranges between USDA Zones 4 to 8. Prolonged ice and extreme temperatures may damage evergreen varieties, and occasional late-season frosts can jeopardize tender flower buds, but most trees recover quickly. Magnolias are also considered relatively deer resistant.
‘Ann’: lightly fragrant, reddish-purple flowers in mid–late spring with upright, chalice-shaped blooms up to 4 inches across; often reblooms lightly in late summer; 8–10 feet tall and wide; sun to part shade; Zone 5
‘Black Tulip’: huge, deep burgundy, fragrant flowers are tulip-shaped and appear in early spring on bare branches; 15–20 feet tall by 6–10 feet wide; sun to part shade; Zone 5
‘Burgundy Star’: new cultivar with an upright, columnar growth habit and large, pinkish-purple, star-shaped flowers in early spring before foliage emerges; 10–12 feet tall by 3–4 feet wide in 10 years; sun to light shade
‘Butterflies’: early blooming with rich, yellow, tulip-shaped, fragrant flowers on bare branches; upright, pyramidal habit; 25–30 feet tall by 10–15 feet wide; sun to part shade; Zone 4
‘Centennial Blush’: (stellata type) pink buds open to frilly, pale pink, fragrant flowers on bare branches in early spring; very hardy variety; 12–18 feet tall by 10–15 feet wide; sun or light shade
‘Daybreak’: rose-pink, lightly scented lily-shaped flowers in mid-late spring; upright, columnar growth habit; 20–25 feet tall by 6–12 feet wide; sun to part shade
‘Elizabeth’: pale yellow to ivory-colored flowers in spring are cup-shaped, fragrant, and don’t produce seed pods after blooming; upright, pyramidal form; 25–40 feet tall by 12–20 feet wide; sun to light shade; Zone 5
‘Felix’: large, deep pink, goblet-shaped flowers can be 10–12 inches wide! Blooms appear on bare branches in early to mid-spring; 15–18 feet tall by 12–15 feet wide; best in sun; new introduction from New Zealand
‘Galaxy’: large, dark pink buds open to large, pale pink flowers on large-growing tree with narrow, conical habit; 30–40 feet tall by 20–25 feet wide; sun to part shade; Zone 5
‘Genie’: large, scented, maroon-purple flowers open from black-red buds in early to mid-spring; small-scale with upright, pyramidal habit 10–13 feet tall by 5–6 feet wide; sun to part shade
‘Leonard Messel’: extra frost-hardy cultivar with purple buds opening to fragrant, pale pink, star-shaped flowers on bare branches in early to mid-spring; 15–20 feet tall by 10–18 feet wide; sun to part shade
‘Royal Star’: (stellata type) large, fragrant, white flowers appear before foliage on this very hardy, durable cultivar; 10–15 feet tall by 10–12 feet wide; sun to part shade; Zone 4
‘Sunsation’: later blooming than most (early to mid-May); yellow, tulip-shaped flowers about 7 inches wide with pink accents; rounded habit; 18–20 feet tall by 15–18 feet wide; sun to part shade
Evergreen magnolia cultivars are similar to deciduous varieties, but often bloom later in spring and continue flowering sporadically into summer. Evergreen foliage tends to be large, paddle-shaped, and dark green with a waxy surface. Some varieties have foliage with a fuzzy brown underside in contrast to the shiny green tops. Although evergreen, these trees tend to shed older leaves randomly and may be considered somewhat “messy” in certain settings.
‘Baby Grand’: new, unique, dwarf cultivar from Australia with a rounded habit; evergreen foliage and large, creamy white, lemon-scented flowers late spring through summer; 8–10 feet tall and wide; full sun; Zone 7
‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’: evergreen foliage is large and leathery with soft, fuzzy brown undersides; 5 to 6-inch wide, fragrant, white flowers from late spring through early summer on this extra cold-tolerant, hardy cultivar; 30–50 feet tall by 15–30 feet wide; full sun; Zone 7
‘Little Gem’: popular dwarf form of Southern magnolia; dense and compact with narrow, columnar habit; evergreen foliage is shiny and dark green with fuzzy brown backs; lightly fragrant, 4-inch wide, creamy-white flowers bloom late spring through summer; 15–20 feet tall by 7–10 feet wide; full sun; Zone 7
To view a beautiful, local collection of Magnolias, visit Elk Rock Garden at 11800 South Military Lane, Portland, OR 97219.
Images in this article are from Monrovia.