Extension Educator, Horticulture
I hope you like your magnolia flowers fried. Unfortunately the flowers of the commonly grown star magnolia and saucer magnolia are susceptible to frost. Magnolias planted on the south side of buildings are hit the hardest, since the warm microclimate pushes the flower buds out especially early. Magnolias planted on the east and north side may miss the cold, at least for now.
It's not hard to love a magnolia tree in flower. The fragrant, large tropical-looking flowers covering the plant–what's not to like? Fried flower syndrome mainly. Fortunately, late flowering magnolias are available.
Magnolias have been a favorite of hybridizers. Right before World War I, Max Loebner crossed star magnolia, Magnolia stellata, with kobus magnolia, Magnolia kobus. His efforts brought us the Loebner Magnolia, Magnolia x loebneri. Some cultivars of Loebner magnolia include:
'Ballerina' is an introduction from the late U of I Professor J.C. McDaniel. It has up to 30 petals. The fragrant flowers are a pure white with a slight pink in the center. The emerging buds are almost a creamy yellow. Luckily the flowers usually escape late frosts. The tree reaches about 20 feet at maturity. This cultivar gets a "thumbs up" from U of I Professor Gary Kling.
'Merrill' is a free flowering, fast grower. The white 3 to 3-1/2 inch diameter flowers are fragrant and prolific. It has performed well at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. 'Merrill' grows to 25 to 30 feet tall.
'Leonard Messel' is a chance hybrid between kobus magnolia and star magnolia 'Rosea.' It has 12 to 15 petals (actually tepals) per flower. The flowers are 4 to 6 inches across with a purple-pink line along the white center. If that wasn't enough, the strap-like petals are a fuchsia pink on the backside. The tree gets to about 20 to 30 feet tall with a broad rounded habit. It is very frost resistant since it blooms in April.
In the 1950's hybridizers at the U.S. National Arboretum crossed Magnolia liliiflora 'Nigra' with Magnolia stellata 'Rosea.' The intention was to keep the good flowering of star magnolia, but flowering later. The Little Girl Hybrids were born. The hybrids are rather shrubby and mature at 10 to 15 feet tall. The flowers open before the leaves, which makes for the showiest of magnolias. During the summer some flowers are produced sporadically. The Little Girl hybrids have successfully flowered at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Hybrids include: 'Ann,' 'Betty,' 'Jane,' 'Judy,' 'Pinkie,' 'Randy,' 'Ricki' and 'Susan.'
'Ann' is a real favorite of many. It has deep purple-red flowers that are a full 4 inches in diameter. It blooms in early to mid April. 'Jane' has red-purple flowers on the outside with white interior and is also 4 inches in diameter. It flowers late April to early May.
If you really like the size and shape of the larger 20 to 30 feet tall saucer magnolia, Magnolia x soulangiana, you may want to try the cultivars 'Big Pink' or 'Rustica Rubra.' 'Big Pink' flowers are fragrant, tulip-shaped with rose pink outside and white inside. It blooms in April. 'Rustica Rubra' is rose-red outside, white inside with a whopping 5-1/2 inch diameter flower.
If yellow magnolias are more to your liking, try 'Elizabeth,' 'Gold Finch,' 'Gold Gift' or 'Gold Sun'. The yellow results from crosses of the cucumbertree magnolia, Magnolia acuminata. 'Elizabeth' has a neat pyramidal habit at 30 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 35 feet wide. It is quite vigorous and like many magnolias it blooms at a young age. The tapered buds open to fragrant primrose yellow flowers.
Plan on visiting the Morton Arboretum (www.mortonarb.org) in Lisle, Illinois this spring to see their over 30 different kinds of magnolias.