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A week or so ago I was in Cornwall, yesterday in London and therefore in a perfect position to watch the march of the magnolia. These fabulous trees are either fading, flowering or getting ready to put on a show depending on where you live in the country. Those of you up north may have to wait until May: still, at least there will be something gorgeous to distract from the election.
The most common magnolias are probably either Magnolia stellata or M. soulangeana. M. stellata is a small variety perfectly suited to the smaller garden. It has pure white star-shaped (hence the name ‘stellata’ as in ‘constellation’) flowers. It grows very slowly and will reach only about 1.5m after 10 years: given perfect conditions it will eventually top out at about three metres.
M. soulangeana is much bigger – you can see it dominating many front gardens in streets all over the country. It has bigger cup shaped flowers which carry a striking pink tinge to their petals. They reach up to eight metres in height and will tolerate pretty heavy clay soils. There is one en route to the primary school in a local village. When our children were small it was a wonderful sight that livened up a mundane school run – and distracted from the various squabbles going on in the back seat. The main drawback is that a late frost will wipe out all the flowers for that season.
Don’t plant magnolias in the direct line of the morning sun as they will get burnt by too much direct sunlight before the dew has had time to evaporate. They need to wake up slowly – like teenagers.
Magnolias have existed in North America, Asia and Europe for the last 100 million years so they have had lots of time to develop many other varieties – both simple and unusual.
My top three would be:
M. delavayi – striking grey leaves and slightly curved lemony white flowers. Only for the very warmest and most sheltered gardens. Does well on limey soils.
M. grandiflora – a later flowering variety with magnificent glossy green leaves and creamy flowers. Excellent on a large shady wall. Interestingly this picture, though not taken by me, is of the same specimen, in Bath, that I first fell for many years ago.
M. campbellii ‘Darjeeling’ – gorgeous sugar pink flowers. Tree eventually reaches 30m.
The best collection in the country is at Caerhays Castle in Cornwall – the place to go if you want your socks knocked off by the splendour of the magnolia (and camellias and many other things).