Gardening: Spring scents the air

By Meg Liptrot

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Make mine a magnolia, says as fragrant blooms appear on her tree.

Magnolia x soulangeana is the variety most commonly seen in New Zealand gardens. Photo / Meg Liptrot
Magnolia x soulangeana is the variety most commonly seen in New Zealand gardens. Photo / Meg Liptrot

I have a soft spot for magnolia, partly because it is the most dramatic flowering tree in spring, but also the very large evergreen Magnolia grandifolia in my grandparents' garden was absolutely the best tree for climbing. Its broad, strong, unwavering branches were the thickness and colour of elephant legs. This tree was old enough so that the best, widest branches were almost horizontal, making them wonderful to lie down on and relax.

This old tree did require some work, and my Grandad would often look at it worriedly, until he was proven right when one of its giant branches gave way during a storm, just nicking the roof and pulling down the guttering. Enough said - the arborists were called in to give the tree a good once over.

Magnolia grandifolia is an evergreen which grows to lofty heights of up to 27m. A native of the south-eastern US, it has quite different leaves to the spring-flowering magnolia - they are thick, dark green and shiny with brown velvet undersides. These days there are smaller cultivars ranging in height from 4-6m.

The fragrance of M. grandifolia is divine. It is an uplifting citronella note, similar to the scent of daphne. Even a single, white, gravy dish-sized petal will hold this scent. These trees flower in summer, from November to March.

The smaller, spring-flowering magnolias are perfect for small city and suburban gardens. With a more upright form, they can be planted on the north side of the house as they are deciduous and won't block winter sun.

The finely textured leaves start out in a lush limey colour, and the simple, elegantly formed tree is well suited to a garden inspired by Japanese or Chinese design. The parent magnolia from which these cultivars are bred originate mainly from east and southeast Asia, after all.

Magnolia stellata is a fascinating tree, the smallest magnolia. Our tree is only about 2m tall and around 17 years old. The hint-of-pink petals are very finely textured; the narrow leaves, with an ancient tangled appearance, are quite narrow. Near this tree we have the larger Magnolia x soulangeana, which is around 6m tall and 3m wide, and only a couple of years older. The flowers are white with burgundy at the petal base. Unfortunately, no record was kept of the cultivar, so it is a bit of a mystery.

M. x soulangeana is the magnolia seen most often in suburban gardens. It comes in a range of cultivars with colours from almost pure white to burgundy. Our neighbour's tree is a dark mauvey pink and has almost finished its late winter blooms, whereas our tree is just starting to flower in September.

For something a bit different, yellow magnolia cultivars can be found in various hues, from the creamy yellow 'Gold Star' hybrid, to the rich 'Gold Crown', and M. accuminata 'Koban dori' and hybrid 'Yellow Bird', which are a lemon-lime colour.

These deciduous magnolias form large furry buds, with the outer casings dropping to the ground as they flower. Only at the end of this show-stopping flower display do they start producing leaves.

Magnificent magnolia

* Magnolias are ancient. Fossils of M. accuminata have been dated to at least 20 million years ago. Fossils from the Magnoliaceae family have been found dating back 95 million years.

* It takes its name from a French botanist. In the early 1700s, Charles Plumier named the flowering tree known by the locals as "Talauma" in the island of Martinique after Pierre Magnol.

* Magnolia is the "genus" name, and there are about 210 species of this plant, with unlimited hybrids and cultivars.

* M. grandiflora is the state tree of Mississippi, and can be found on the edges of swamps. The 1989 film Steel Magnolias is set in Louisiana, where this tree is also found.

* In the US, this tree is harvested for timber commercially and used to make furniture, venetian blinds, doors and window sashes, among other things.

* Magnolia denudata, from which the smaller M. x soulangeana was bred, is native to China, and has been cultivated in Buddhist temple gardens since 600AD.

* Meg Liptrot studied sustainable horticulture and is a garden designer specialising in organic edibles and natives.

- Herald on Sunday

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