In the Garden | Magnificent magnolia

The classic tulip shaped blooms of Magnolia x soulangeana on still bare branches is a breathtaking sight. At maturity the plant achieves the size of a small tree (5-8m tall and 4-5m wide) on a single trunk with low lateral branches, so it will need to be provided with sufficient growing room.

STUNNING DISPLAY: Magnolia x soulangeana (or saucer magnolia) are one of the great flowering delights of winter.

STUNNING DISPLAY: Magnolia x soulangeana (or saucer magnolia) are one of the great flowering delights of winter.

The magnolia family, a large and varied genus of deciduous and evergreen shrubs and trees, the majority of which come from Asia – the Himalayas, China, Korea and Japan, and others from eastern USA – was named after Professor Pierre Magnol, one-time director of the Montpelier Botanic Gardens in southern France. M. x soulangeana is the collective name of a specific French hybrid by M. Soulange-Boudin.

Deep, fertile soil that contains plenty of humus and drains well is the desired growing medium for magnolias. The deciduous kinds prefer a little shade in the heat of the day while all will benefit from the protection of strong or salty winds. While they are safe in temperatures down to -5C, good air drainage will help minimise damage by late frost.   

Soulangeana blooms may vary in colour, but are recognisable by their large waxy flowers, white inside suffused with purple at the base and petal edges, lilac purple outside, deeper towards the base. Some variants flower as early as July, others not until the end of August, but all will last for about three to four weeks.

Because of their outstanding colour variation, shape or size, certain cultivars have become varieties in their own right. ‘Alba superba’ has large white perfumed flowers with pinkish purple at the base: The flowers of ‘Lennei’ are globular in shape, white to pale purple inside, beetroot purple outside.

Magnolia stellata, the Japanese star magnolia from the highlands of Honshu, is one of the best of the deciduous tree to about 3m and often wider, producing many erect shoots from the centre. Clusters of furry winter buds open to abundant cones of pure white fragrant flowers in July and August.

Tip cuttings of semi-hardwood taken with a heel of old wood any time in summer to autumn will propagate readily if dusted with hormone powder or dipped in honey, then planted into a 50/50 mix of coarse sand and coco-peat placed on a cool misted bench in a glasshouse. Layering is an alternative way, where a low-lying branch is notched and then pinned down to form roots over the next 12 months before lifting, severing and planting up into a container.