Magnolias are certainly one of the most glamorous, enchanting, and rewarding trees to grow. This ancient plant was one of the first flowering fauna ever to exist on our earth, and it continues to captivate us to this very day. Magnolias truly are a living, breathing, blooming piece of natural history, and a must-have for any botanical enthusiast.
And with hundreds of brilliant varieties to choose from, we’re sure you’ll soon be tempted to add a magnolia tree to your own garden. To help you along, we’ve put together the definitive guide to growing magnificent magnolias!
What are magnolias?
Magnolia is a large and diverse genus of around 200 species of flowering trees and shrubs belonging to the Magnoliaceae family. They have a spreading growth habit and can be both deciduous and evergreen, depending on the species. Each magnolia variety displays large, fragrant, flowers which are unique to their respective species, and are the reason that this ornamental tree has been so adored by gardeners and botanists the world over for many centuries.
Magnolias’ abundant flowers delicately adorn their dense boughs of deep green, waxy leaves. Usually appearing before the foliage emerges, the flowers are cup or star-shaped and waterlily-like, with large, fleshy petals in elegant pale pastel colours, although some varieties display richer deeper hues. Most commonly, the flowers are shades of white, yellow, or pink but purple and green flowers are found too. The flowers can range in size from a petite two inches in diameter to a whopping 12 inches! Deciduous varieties tend to bloom in early spring, whilst evergreen varieties bloom slightly later, in early summer. Magnolia flowers exude a fruity, floral, and sweet scent which fills the garden air and is often extracted for use in aromatherapy. Their fragrance is often likened to that of champagne, which seems perfectly fitting for such a lavish-looking tree.
And the flowers aren’t just exquisite to behold, they’re edible too! It’s common to find pickles, preserves, and garnishes made from magnolia petals, which have an aromatic, lightly spiced flavour.
The height and spread of a magnolia tree can vary greatly depending on the species. Smaller shrub-like varieties max out at around 20 feet tall, whilst larger varieties can easily reach heights of around 80 feet, although it can take up to 20 years for them to reach their full height potential.
The History of Magnolias
Magnolias are an ancient species which display a phenomenon called disjunct distribution. This is where genetically similar or identical members of the same species are found growing wild in two completely separate, unrelated regions of the planet. Magnolias are native both to South East Asia and the Americas. Scientists theorise that this disjunct distribution is due to the sheer age of the species, having endured various monumental geological events, such as ice ages and continental drifts, which scattered its populations and left some of its members completely isolated and yet almost identical to other members in different regions.
In fact, magnolias are so very ancient that they evolved and flourished even before the existence of bees to pollinate them! Magnolias are thought to be amongst the first-ever flowering plants on the planet, and they are actually pollinated by beetles, who are attracted by the taste and fragrance of the flowers. Fossil records show that Magnolias probably first emerged during the Cretaceous period, some 150 million years ago!
Us humans have interacted with magnolias for millennia. They were cultivated by the ancient Aztecs in Mexico, with records showing illustrations of the flowers being used as decorations in festivals and worship, as ingredients in herbal medicines, and, more recently, as a seasoning for chocolate! In Asia, magnolia is used to treat headaches and alleviate allergic reactions, whilst other scientific studies have found evidence that magnolias can be used to help treat both cancer and stroke. In modern China, the dried bark from magnolia trees is used in a herbal medicine practice known as Hou Po, to treat digestive and respiratory issues.
What do Magnolias symbolise?
A great many meanings have been ascribed to magnolia trees in their native regions. In North America, they are said to symbolise stability due to their unwavering ability to endure vast geological changes in their long history. They are also associated with luck and good fortune, and it is customary to plant a magnolia tree in your garden to ensure economic stability.
In Chinese culture, magnolias represent yin, or the female spirit. They are often associated with strong, powerful women, as well as nobility and purity. In Japan, magnolias symbolise dignity and respect for the natural world.
The colours of a magnolias blooms have also been ascribed specific meanings. White flowers represent purity and perfection, whilst pink flowers represent joy, innocence and youthfulness. Other, rarer colours like purple or green are associated with health and good fortune.
15 of the best magnolia varieties to grow
There are over 200 species of magnolia trees, and a great many more cultivars have been developed over the years, meaning there’s a huge selection to choose from. To help you make the right choice for you and your garden, we’ve listed some of our absolute favourite magnolia varieties.
The Anise or Willow-Leafed magnolia is a deciduous variety originating from Japan, where it blooms in early spring. It offers delicate, star-shaped, white flowers which frame rose-gold-coloured central pistils. A relatively small magnolia, Anise rarely exceeds 25 feet in height so it’s perfect for small gardens or containers.
Ashe’s magnolia is a small, deciduous variety which rarely exceeds 25 feet tall. It offers large, oval leaves and elegant white star-shaped petals, often with crimson markings in the centre. Each petal can reach up to one foot in length!
Black Tulip magnolias are famed for having some of the deepest-hued flowers of all magnolias. Offering richly coloured fuchsia and plum blooms with tightly arranged petals that are reminiscent of roses, they demand attention. Their modest stature means they’re ideal for smaller spaces.
The Bigleaf magnolia unsurprisingly takes its name from its oversized, olive-green coloured foliage. Each leaf can measure 30 inches in length! Producing large, white, lily-like flowers in late spring and early summer, this deciduous variety can also be grown as an evergreen in warmer climates. It’s a mid-sized magnolia, with an eventual height of around 40 feet.
The Cucumber Tree magnolia takes its name from its decidedly cucumber-like fruits, which appear after flowering. Its petite blooms are tulip-shaped with pale yellow petals. Cucumber magnolias are particularly cold hardy, so they’re ideal if you live in a cool northern climate. It can also tolerate a fair amount of shade, although in sunny spots it can reach colossal heights of around 80 feet tall, with trunks of around four feet in diameter, so it’s not suited to small gardens
Daybreak magnolia is surely one of the most decorative varieties of all. It produces highly ornate lily-like blooms in hues of cream, white, pink, and purple with its petals proudly shrouding central clusters of plum-coloured stamens. This highly fragrant variety blooms from mid to late spring and can reach imposing heights of forty feet tall.
The Elizabeth magnolia offers a dense display of large, sunshine-yellow tulip-shaped flowers during spring, gradually fading to a delicate cream colour as they age. Elizabeth is perfect for containers, having a modest spread and an eventual mature height of around twenty feet tall.
The Kobus magnolia originates in Japan, where it produces delicate white cup-shaped blooms, tinged with pink in early spring. From afar, they resemble the cherry blossom tree. Although Kobus is a slow-growing variety, it can still easily achieve heights of 35 feet and beyond once matured.
The Lily magnolia is prized for its elegant, upturned blooms that are reminiscent of water lilies. Emerging in early spring, its flowers range from bright bubblegum pink to the palest rose. Its small stature makes this stunning variety perfect for small gardens or pots, with an average height of around fifteen feet.
Loebner magnolias are ideal for smaller gardens, with their modest height of around twenty feet. They produce petite and fragrant star-shaped blooms in shades of pink and white throughout spring. Loebner magnolias can tolerate some shade, although they bloom most prolifically with full sun.
The Saucer magnolia, also known as the Chinese magnolia, is a truly show-stopping variety, and one of the most popular varieties to grow. It produces dense displays of upturned flowers, with each candy-pink petal being framed by a snow-white fringe. This mid-sized variety is well suited to a range of garden sizes and both border or container growing.
The Southern magnolia takes its name from its native territory in the deep south of North America. It’s also known as the Grandiflora magnolia, and offers large, showy, open white flowers with rich golden centres, often as large as twelve inches in diameter. Southern magnolias are late bloomers, offering breathtaking blooms throughout late summer and sometimes even into early autumn.
The Star magnolia is so named for its truly stunning, multi-petalled star-shaped flowers. Its snow-white petals encircle central golden pistils. A particularly early flowering magnolia, expect this variety to burst into bloom in late winter or very early spring. It has a modest height of around fifteen to twenty feet, perfect for pots and small spaces.
The Sweetbay magnolia offers creamy-coloured, architectural flowers which are reminiscent of an orchid. In the centre of its wide, flat petals sit tall, conical, golden-hued stamen clusters. When grown in northern climates, Sweetbay magnolias will be compact, shrub-like and deciduous, whilst in warmer climes, they will grow into tall, evergreen trees.
The Umbrella magnolia features upturned, creamy-white petals which frame central rose-coloured pistils. It takes its name from its enormous emerald-green leaves, which are clustered around the tips of its stems like the prongs of an umbrella. Flowering in late spring and early summer, this variety has the potential to reach thirty feet in height.
Planting your new magnolia tree
When – Although young magnolia trees are available to purchase from nurseries all year round, it’s best to plant your magnolia in early autumn or early spring when the days are bright and cool but the ground isn’t frozen.
Where – Choose a sheltered but sunny position to plant your magnolia tree. They are particularly susceptible to wind damage and regular exposure to harsh, cold gusts can prevent them from flowering. Many gardeners grow their magnolias against a wall to provide extra shelter, but be mindful that this can obstruct rainfall from reaching the roots, so wall-trained magnolias will need more regular watering.
You should take into account the eventual mature size of your chosen magnolia variety and allow ample space for it to grow since some can be pretty big! Smaller varieties are very in pots, and growing them this way means you can easily transport them between sheltered positions for the winter and sunny spots for the summer. Adding casters to the base of the pot makes it much easier to move mature trees around. Make sure you choose a heavy, sturdy pot that will comfortably accommodate the eventual height and weight of your mature magnolia tree without toppling over. The pot should be several times larger in diameter than your young magnolias rootball to allow it room to grow. As always, make sure your pot has plenty of drainage holes, and line the bottom of the pot with a layer of extra drainage materials like pebbles before filling it with soil.
How – Magnolia planting simply couldn’t be easier. They have shallow roots, so you needn’t dig a very deep hole. Just deep enough to accommodate the root ball sitting flush with the soil’s surface, and around the same diameter as its original pot. Take care not to damage any of the delicate roots when you transplant them, as this can affect their ability to flower. Work plenty of organic matter through the soil to deliver all the essential nutrients your young magnolia will need as it grows. Give it a thorough soaking once planted and continue to water it regularly for the first few months.
Caring For Magnolia Trees
Magnolias are rather easy trees to care for once established, provided the location is right for them. Here are our top tips for nurturing magnificent magnolias.
Magnolias are an adaptable bunch and will tolerate most soil types, so long as it is relatively fertile, loose and well-draining. Try to avoid planting them in very dry, sandy soils though, as they prefer moderate moisture levels. Although most magnolias will do just fine in neutral soil, they tend to perform best with a mildly acidic pH level. Alternatively, there are a few varieties that thrive in alkaline soil, so it’s worth testing your soil and selecting a variety which is best suited to your garden’s pH levels. If your soil is either highly alkaline or highly acidic, you’ll be best off growing your magnolia in a pot.
Magnolia trees like plenty of sunlight, and those grown in full sun will bloom most prolifically, although later-blooming varieties will cope with a dappled shade position. Aim to plant your magnolia somewhere that receives at least four hours of sunlight each day throughout spring and summer.
Devise your watering schedule with the aim of keeping the soil evenly, consistently, and lightly moist, without becoming waterlogged. You mustn’t let your magnolia’s soil dry out completely during the summer, as they aren’t particularly drought tolerant, especially when young. Once matured, they may cope with short periods of drought, although it can stress them out. Younger trees will need regular watering for their first few years (at least weekly), and magnolias grown in containers will need watering more often than established and ground-grown trees. Yellowing foliage is an indication that you may be either under or overwatering your magnolia.
Temperature and Humidity
The temperature and humidity requirements of your magnolia will vary depending on the variety you choose to grow. When selecting a magnolia, opt for a species whose native environmental conditions closely match the climate and conditions in your own back garden. This will make caring for your Magnolia much easier.
As a general rule, most evergreen magnolias are reliably cold hardy down to around -5°C, whereas deciduous varieties can tolerate slightly colder temperatures. Regular temperatures below -10°C can be fatal, especially over prolonged periods. If you live in a colder climate, opt for a later flowering variety.
Young magnolias will certainly benefit from spring and summer feeds with an all-purpose fertiliser to encourage abundant, long-lasting blooms. Generally, one feed per season is plenty, and you can also add a little fertiliser in fall to help strengthen young trees before winter. Mulching in spring with compost, leaf mould, or manure will help to increase the fertility of the soil too, but leave a generous gap around the base of the trunk to prevent rotting the bark. Older, more established trees generally won’t need any additional fertiliser.
The best time to prune your magnolia is just after it finishes blooming, around mid-to-late summer whilst temperatures are still warm. Carefully remove any suckers from the trunk or roots, and any damaged or unruly branches with sterile shears. Don’t prune your magnolia during the winter, as the exposed branch tips are susceptible to frost damage. Try not to get too scissor happy either, as heavy pruning will stress your magnolia and it may fail to bloom in following years. Instead, prune your tree gradually over a few years.
Whilst most species are relatively cold hardy, you may need to provide a little extra protection over winter, especially if you live in a cooler northern climate. Overexposure to frost can damage the foliage and new buds, hindering its beautiful blooms, so it’s important to grow them in a nicely sheltered position which offers protection from the worst of the winter elements. Container-grown magnolias can be moved to a warmer, more sheltered area of the garden for winter, whilst border-grown trees will benefit from a layer of mulch. Gardeners in very cold areas may even want to wrap the trunk in some horticultural fleece for extra frost protection.
Pests and Disease
Magnolias are known for being relatively pest free, but they may fall victim to fungal diseases if conditions aren’t quite right. Keep an eye out for black spots on the leaves or wilting foliage, as these are both symptoms of common fungal problems. Remove any damaged or unhealthy-looking branches promptly using sterile shears. You can prevent fungal problems by making sure your magnolia tree gets plenty of fresh air circulation. Remove any overcrowded branches and be careful not to overwater them.
As always, the best way to prevent problems is to make sure all of your trees’ needs are met. If they are happy and healthy, they will be much better equipped to fight off any potential ailments.
How long will my magnolia tree live?
Having an average lifespan of around a hundred years or more, these trees certainly deliver a plentiful return on your investment. With the correct care, your magnolia tree will easily endure for many generations to come!
How fast will my magnolia tree grow?
Like most trees, magnolias are relatively slow-growing, and it can take up to twenty years for them to reach their full height! Patience is key with these trees, as it can take several years for them to start producing flowers after planting.
With their fascinating history, exquisite flowers, and an irresistible fragrance, these trees really do have it all. We’re certain that you’ll find their enchanting character and unfussy temperament simply irresistible, so why not get started with growing your magnificent magnolias today?