In love with magnolias since she was a little girl


I fell in love with magnolias when I was a little girl living in rural New Jersey. Our school bus traveled under one growing atop a fieldstone wall. The old tree arched all the way over the road, and in May its flowers created a pink and white tunnel filled with the fragrance of spring.

Found in fossils more than 130 million years old, magnolias developed before bees existed. Their showy flowers are designed to be pollinated by beetles.

Magnolias are native to southeast and eastern Asia and the Americas. None of the American natives are hardy this far north, so the trees in local gardens are hybrids of Old and New World species. The tree I fell in love with as a kid was one of the most popular — a saucer magnolia (Magnolia soulangeana). There was one in our yard in Kansas City, and we’ve planted several of them here in Port.

Saucer magnolias are large ornamental trees, up to 25 feet tall and wide at maturity. Like most garden magnolias, their large, showy flowers open before any leaves develop. They bloom early in the spring, and in many northern locations the blossoms or buds may be damaged by frost. This happened in Kansas City, but here along the lake where spring is late to arrive, our trees have never been damaged.

We also have several star magnolias (M. stellata) in our yard. These are about 15 feet tall and flower several weeks earlier than the saucer magnolias. They have 3-inch white blooms with dozens of narrow petals and sepals. One cultivar, ‘Elegant Spring,’ has double flowers that are blushed pink at the base and lightly perfumed. Ours has only been in the garden three years, but when I checked last weekend the little tree was loaded with buds.

Since I love magnolias so, last winter I planted ‘Canary Charm,’ a smaller saucer type magnolia, where we took down a street side spruce. It’s supposed to be fragrant, but our tree is so tiny it hasn’t flowered yet. There are no buds on it this year either. I suspect it isn’t too happy where I planted it. I’ve recently discovered magnolias prefer acid soil. I suspect I’ve lived in ignorant bliss of this fact because the other magnolias in the garden have benefited from our efforts to correct the chlorosis in the oak that grows near them. We acidify the soil in the area every year, which may be why those magnolias are so happy.

There’s room for more magnolias. The eastern-most spruce in the row that cuts through our back yard is a goner, and I think a ‘Butterflies’ magnolia would be just the thing to replace it. ‘Butterflies’ is the darkest yellow of the current saucer type hybrids and one of the latest to flower in the spring. It’s a popular cultivar, so I may be able to obtain a specimen that is larger than  my other recent acquisitions. At my age, that’s a bonus. I might be able to see it grow into a respectable sized tree before I have to hang up my trowel.

All of these magnolias are hardy to zone 4, although late frost can damage their flowers. They grow in full sun but tolerate a little shade. Saucer magnolias have large leaves, however, so there is raking to be done in autumn. The trees create dense shade, too, so grass will struggle under them.



Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login