Plant Profiles: Magnolia
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Small to large, evergreen or deciduous, robust flowering tree; 12 to 40 feet
Sun to part shade, adequate water, well-drained, humus-rich soil
Overwatering; flowering compromised by excessive shade
M. sieboldii is the easiest of the late-blooming magnolias to grow
Mid-seventeenth-century France was a lousy place for a young Protestant who wanted to go to college. Odds were good he (she? ha!) couldn't get in. Pierre Magnol must have been some kind of a guy to buck the system and become a brilliant professor of botany, so brilliant that his work inspired Our Father of the Plant Classification System, the eighteenth-century botanist Carl von Linne, a.k.a, Carolus Linnaeus.
Always one to acknowledge a colleague, Linnaeus paid great homage to Magnol. Today, few members of Homo sapiens -- a Linnaean classification, by the way -- who smell its fragrance or see its bloom do not know Magnolia by name.
Yet as widely planted as this genus is, a number of its superb species are missing from the landscape, particularly those that hold back bloom until the first spring orgy is over. At the top of the list is M. sieboldii, introduced more than a century ago from Japan. It's a small (twelve-feet), broad, shrubby magnolia with erect, egglike buds that open to firm, three- to four-inch cupped white blossoms, rich in fruity scent. The tree flowers from late May to July and has been known to toss on a few blooms in August. Even then, the show isn't over -- not until the psychedelic-pink seedpods sing.
M. sieboldii has a lovely silvery silhouette, its candelabra shape evocative of welcoming arms opened wide. It's also the easiest of the late bloomers to grow, and the only one that can take full sun.
Afternoon shade is a must for the closely related M. wilsonii, which has much larger leaves (sometimes ten inches long) and similarly stunning, fragrant white flowers. The telling difference is that the Wilson magnolia's blossoms hang upside down (all the better to show their rose-crimson anthers), and therefore beg to be gazed up into. This is easily accomplished when the tree is planted on a slope or in a berm.
Both of these stunners will leave you wanting nothing, I mean nothing, for fragrance. But if you're a glutton for sensation (or have a weak sense of smell), a deep breath of M. watsonii (syn. M. x wiesneri) is your fix. Its six-inch ivory flowers are positively overwhelming, borne on a twenty-foot tree with a heavier feel in the landscape that shows its best shape when pruned.
Last, a magnolia celebrated for its foliage rather than its flowers: M. macrophylla. Its many common names give a lot away about this American native that was grown by the Empress Josephine, certainly the first on her block to have a (choose one) bigleaf, great-leaved, elephant ear, big bloom, or cucumber tree.
We're talking about a huge (forty feet), fast-growing, and tropical-feeling shade tree with leaves the size of a five-year-old child. This species has a texture that will dominate a landscape; give it a comfy corner out of the wind so that its showy, three-foot leaves won't get tattered. Its fragrant, June/July flowers, fifteen inches across, are similarly outlandish, as are the mega seed cones that follow. Admittedly, both are slightly obscured high up among the plant's whorling, helicopter-blade leaves.
A postscript concerning Pierre Magnol: In all likelihood, the good professor never laid eyes on his namesake. The magnolia was introduced to Europe -- and then only to a privileged few -- a mere six years before his death.