The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Enjoy the Magnificent Flowers of Magnolia

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator
slmason@illinois.edu

A magnolia tree in flower has few rivals. Their exotically fragrant coffee cup sized flowers appear more likely suited for a Hawaiian lei than an Illinois landscape. Since spring is their time to show off, let's look at the playbill to discover which magnolia is on stage.

One of the most common is saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana) with its pinkish purple tankard sized flowers of 5 to 10 inches across. The flower petals (actually tepals) are big and beefy. Saucer magnolias have a characteristic wide spreading shape as low branched 30-foot tall trees. A mature saucer magnolia in flower is the perfect photo booth for cute little girls in spring dresses.

Saucer magnolias offer numerous cultivars. 'Big Pink' flowers are fragrant with rose pink outside and white on inside of petals. Flowers are a bit larger and appear a bit later than regular saucer magnolias.

Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) usually appears as a large shrub in its youth then as a small tree as it ages to an easy-to-use size of 20 feet tall. The petals are narrower and smaller than saucer magnolias, but they make up for it with greater quantity of petals and flowers. Star magnolia can be found as many fabulous cultivars. 'Centennial' originated at the Arnold Arboretum and in 1972 celebrated their 100th anniversary with this magnificent magnolia.

Unfortunately the flowers of the common star magnolia and saucer magnolia are susceptible to late frosts. Some years just as the trees are in glorious flower we get a cold snap and our conversations go from "What is that beautiful blooming tree?" to "Why are there brown socks hanging on that tree?"

Magnolias have been a favorite of hybridizers searching for greater flowers and later flowering cultivars. Right before World War 1, German Max Loebner crossed star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) with kobus magnolia (Magnolia kobus). His efforts brought us Loebner magnolia (Magnolia x loebneri) which includes the following cultivars:

'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 a creamy yellow. Luckily the flowers usually escape late frosts. The tree reaches about 20 feet at maturity.

'Leonard Messel' is a chance hybrid between kobus magnolia and star magnolia 'Rosea'. It has 12 to 15 petals per flower. The frost resistant flowers are 4 to 6 inches across with a purple-pink line along the white center. The strap-like petals are a tantalizing fuchsia pink on the backside. The broad rounded tree grows to 20 to 30 feet tall.

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In the 1950's hybridizers at the U.S. National Arboretum crossed lily magnolia (Magnolia liliiflora 'Nigra') with star magnolia (Magnolia stellata 'Rosea'). The intention was to keep the good flowering of star magnolia, but flowering later. The Little Girl Hybrids of 'Ann', 'Betty', 'Jane', 'Judy', 'Pinkie', 'Randy', 'Ricki' and 'Susan' were born. Their flowers generally open late enough to avoid frosts and may continue to flower sporadically during the summer.

If yellow magnolias are more to your liking, try 'Elizabeth', 'Gold Finch', 'Gold Gift' or 'Gold Sun'. The yellow results from cultivars and crosses of the native 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.

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Magnolias are pretty, easy going trees tolerant of most environmental conditions; however, flowering is best in full sun. Spring is the perfect time to scout out the best blossoming actors on the landscape stage.

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