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Spring drama

24 August 2022
3. mag 'darjeeling'3

Magnolias and their cousins, tulip trees and michelias, produce some of spring’s most dramatic blooms. Words & Photos Gillian Vine

Magnificent magnolias In the middle of the 19th century, plant hunters trawled China looking for new species. One was Joseph Hooker, who was to follow his dad, Sir William Hooker, as director of London’s Kew Gardens. In a choice bit of nepotism, his father put Joseph’s name forward for a three-year expedition to the Himalayas.

From 1848, Joseph sent back to England hundreds of plants, most previously unknown to Europeans. These included 25 new rhododendrons, but the star was the stunning Magnolia campbellii. There’s a charming little footnote to Hooker’s discovery: almost exactly a century later, during the 1953 Mount Everest exhibition, members of Sir Edmund Hillary’s party saw Nepalese forest dominated by white-flowered M. campbellii and in post-Everest talks, Sir Edmund showed photos of the scenes that so impressed him and his companions.

One of at least 200 magnolia species, all from the northern hemisphere, M. campbellii is among the largest, growing up to 30m tall. Smothered in pink or white flowers that appear before the leaves, a mature tree makes a dramatic picture against a blue spring sky.


From this species came, in 1967, the smaller (10m) ‘Darjeeling’ with its very dark pink flowers and, some 25 years earlier, ‘Charles Raffill’, which has showy, two-toned pink blooms. ‘Kew’s Surprise’ is a chance seedling of the latter and will grow 15–20m.

Popular for smaller gardens at 3–4m is the star magnolia, M. stellata. A Japanese species, it is now critically endangered in the wild, so growing it as a garden shrub has helped save it from extinction.

Another small species (3m) is the Oyama magnolia (M. sieboldii), whose prominent red stamens and yellow autumn foliage make it a winner for those who like something a bit different.

Like most magnolias, the Oyama is Asian and deciduous, while for an evergreen species, American M. grandiflora is a great big (30m) beauty, whose fat cream flowers are deliciously lemon scented. ‘Little Gem’ (6m) is a smaller M. grandiflora variety. Another American, M. acuminata, has yellow flowers and from it almost all yellow-flowered magnolia varieties have been developed (such as ‘Yellow Bird’, ‘Butterflies’ and ‘Elizabeth’). M. acuminata can have colourful autumn foliage, which is uncommon in a magnolia.

NZ: a leader

Other species have been used to great effect in producing new, more compact varieties. For many years, New Zealand has been a world leader in magnolia breeding, with ‘Athene’ (7m), ‘Felix Jury’ (6m), ‘Star Wars’ (5m), ‘Vulcan’ (5m), ‘Black Tulip’ (4m), ‘Amethyst Flame’ (3m) and ‘Billowing Cloud’ (3m) some of the varieties produced in this country, notably by the late Felix Jury and his son Mark.

Top magnolias

Choice species: It’s a toss-up between M. stellata and the lesserknown M. sieboldii, both of which are suitable for small gardens.

For smaller gardens: ‘Vulcan’ is splendid; its intensely deep-red flowers are an absolute joy. If glossy, evergreen foliage is preferred, ‘Little Gem’ is lovely.

Specimen tree: If there is enough space, the pink form of M. campbellii is a splendid sight in spring as the fuzzy buds open. Hardy, but late frosts can destroy the flowers.

Michelia muddle

What’s in a name?

Until the 1930s, nursery catalogues listed no Michelia species, as they were grouped with magnolias. Then they were reclassified, with the two principal evergreen species being Michelia fuscata (later becoming Michelia figo) and Michelia doltsopa. It changed again when, in recent times, it was decided that michelias were a magnolia variant and back they went.

You’ll still find Magnolia figo sold as portwine michelia, a reference to the extremely fragrant flowers. They don’t look very exciting, the dull purple blooms, tending to be obscured by the evergreen leaves, but they punch out perfume, especially at night.

M. doltsopa ‘Silver Cloud’ was a Duncan & Davies introduction from the 1960s. It has the merit of flowering very young, the large and creamy white flowers appearing from early spring through to the start of summer. Like most other michelias, the flowers are highly scented.

‘Lemon Fragrant’ (4m) is a newer release developed by John Thirkettle of Nelson. A cross between small-leaved M. yunnanensis and ‘Bubbles’ (4m), it forms a shapely small tree with lemon-scented white flowers that emerge in spring from the furry brown buds typical of hardy michelias.

‘Isabella’ (3m) is similar and, like ‘Bubbles’ and ‘Lemon Fragrant’, is recommended for hedging.

The Fairy Magnolia group is a modern take on michelias from Taranaki breeder Mark Jury. Upright and compact evergreen shrubs with fragrant spring flowers, they are quite versatile, being suitable for hedging, as specimen shrubs or planting in large containers. ‘Fairy Blush’ has white blooms, blushed lilac pink; ‘Fairy White’ has pure white flowers; and ‘Fairy Cream’ has pure cream blossoms. All grow 3–4m tall and flower prolifically over a fairly long period.

The plants considered so far are the hardiest michelias, tolerating light frosts, but the splendid orange-flowered champaca or Joy perfume tree (M. champaca) is a more delicate creature.

This makes it most suitable for growing north of Auckland, although if you live in a frost-free area, you may want to try it. In its native habitat, champaca can reach 30m or more but in cultivation tends to stop at about 10m. Unlike its hardier cousins, it should be grown in full sun.

Taking care

Along with rhododendrons and magnolias, michelias prefer a rich, acidic soil with plenty of organic matter. Except for champaca, they tolerate light frosts (approximately –5°C) and do best in sun or light shade but need protection from cold winds. Stake well until established and provide plenty of lime-free mulch to prevent the roots drying out during the summer months. Light pruning after flowering keeps the trees compact and shapely. Because named varieties are grafted, it is important not to leave shoots on the rootstock (the part below the join). Grab these unwanted shoots when young and pull them off rather than cutting them.

Top michelias

Choice species: If you have the right conditions, it’s impossible to ignore the Joy perfume tree (M. champaca) for its orange flowers and heavenly perfume.

For smaller gardens: ‘Lemon Fragrant’ is an absolute honey with excellent fragrance. Any of the Fairy Magnolia group come close for scent and versatility.

Specimen trees: There are now standard forms of Fairy Magnolia available and ‘Fairy Blush’ is our pick for its unique, pink-tinged flowers.

Stately tulip trees

Unique pair

There are just two species in the Liriodendron genus: the North American tulip tree (L. tulipifera) and Chinese tulip tree (L. chinense). Both are tall deciduous trees that have brilliant orange and yellow, autumnal foliage.

The leaves are large – 10cm x 20cm – and four-pointed. Hold one by its stem and the resemblance to some tulips is apparent. However, it is the cup-shaped flowers that have given these trees their common moniker.

Family connection

Tulip trees are part of the Magnoliaceae family, which includes magnolias and michelias.

It’s a fascinating clan, as fossil records show members were once found across much of North America and Eurasia. They date back at least 95 million years, sharing their turf with dinosaurs but not bees, which were unknown, so the flower shape evolved so beetles could pollinate them. These days, bees help out.

American tulip trees are long-lived, with one known to be 350 years old, while 200 seems to be the average. They will grow 60m tall with a rounded crown, so are mostly seen in parks and very large gardens. The wood is used for furniture, sometimes marketed as yellow poplar.

A smaller, upright form, L. tulipifera fastigiata, grows to about 20m x 8m, so it is still a big tree. The same is true of hardy L. tulipifera ‘Aureomarginatum’, which grows to about the same size, its variegated leaves an eye-catcher in summer when other tulip trees are less impressive. These are grand specimens for sunny places if they are given enough space.

Not as familiar

Not as well-known as L. tulipifera, the foliage of L. chinense has a purple tinge as buds unfold in spring, the four-pointed leaves looking rather as if something took a bite out of the tops. Foliage develops a blue-green colour as it matures before turning yellow in autumn.

The flowers, which appear in late spring or early summer, are similar to those of L. tulipifera but have green markings on the outside of the petals. Nursery catalogues say this will grow to about 10m in 10 years but be aware its ultimate height will be at least twice that.

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