Saucer magnolia on brink of its annual winter show

Saucer magnolia on brink of its annual winter show

Posted: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 8:01 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams

Magnolias, for the most part, are of easy culture. They do prefer reasonably nutritious conditions and plenty of water until well established, but otherwise are not persnickety.
Deciduous types, which include the oriental varieties and some others, bloom mostly in spring, even late winter in mild years. A sizable property can use several of them and they are fine understory in light woodland where they will, however, bloom a bit more sparsely. This is not a problem since they are so generous of bloom anyway that a few less flowers is inconsequential.
Among the most popular of them is undoubtedly Magnolia x soulangeana, often called tulip tree or saucer magnolia, a hybrid between the species Magnolia denudata and Magnolia lilliflora. More of these are seen in this area than any of the others, though some newer varieties are making inroads.
Saucer magnolia blooms early, mostly in March, and is subject to freezes, which will not harm the tree — it is hardy far north of here — but will destroy a year’s crop of blooms. This happens in about one of four seasons on average.
Flowers are six inches or so across, reddish purple outside and pink to white inside. When they first break from their furry outer coverings, the flowers take on the shape of a light bulb, but then open on out to a flatter configuration. A tree in full sun will bear an enormous crop, smothering the tree and a spectacular sight only mitigated because there so many of them around. If familiarity doesn’t breed contempt it at least breeds indifference.
As the petals fall, quickly in warm weather but more slowly when it is cold, they cover the ground so copiously that they are quite a sight even in death.
Despite that seemingly glorious flower color description, some strains are decidedly more palatable than others. There are some that, at a distance, seem to have an overcoat of a brownish hue that tarnishes the effect.
There are, too, named varieties of Magnolia soulangeana that are improvements over the straight hybrid.
One is Alexandrina, which blooms slightly later, but nevertheless will sometimes be caught by freezes. I have several of these in our woodland. They bloom before accompanying native dogwoods, with a nicer pink than some others. The flowers come before the leaves, and are  presented in the spare winter landscape in an artsy way, spaced along the branches. Alexandrina has escaped frosts more often than our straight hybrid.
Lennei is not seen often here, but is valuable for later bloom. It isn’t as often caught by freezes. Flowers are purple outside, white inside. There is a white form of it too.
With little else going on in the garden at bloom time of the early magnolias, it is difficult to find complementing accompaniment, though none is really necessary. However, I would say an underplanting of a few hundred — perhaps 1,000 — small white early daffodils or electric blue Siberian squills would do wonders when things hit it off right. One could try a few bulbs for a year or two to work out the timing, then invest in more of the ones that work.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.

Published in The Messenger 3.1.11

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