Magnolia campbellii Lanarth

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

This is not the only plant named Lanarth. There is also the very handsome Viburnum plicatum Lanarth, which has branches that rise in tiers like the arms of an overexcited cake stand, and a white lace cap Hydrangea macrophylla, called Lanarth White.

Lanarth is a village above the Camel estuary in Cornwall so I assume that both plants have a connection. Cornwall has some of the finest gardens in the country many of which house extraordinary magnolia collections. Because of the mild climate the magnolias are seldom hit by late frosts and are spectacular from late March.

Magnolia sprengeri Diva

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

An interesting thing about magnolias. They are a very ancient genus of plants and are thought to have been around up to 20 million years ago (we know this from fossils of Magnolia acuminata). This is before bees were invented (by whomsoever invents such things) so the flowers developed to encourage pollination by beetles.

Beetles do not have the delicate touch that a gently buzzing bee has – for one thing they have to stomp all over the flower instead of hovering. As a result (and I am going to wax a little botanical here for a moment) their carpels are extremely tough.

Magnolia sargentiana alba

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Not all magnolias are deciduous, nor do they all flower at the same time. Our most common evergreen in Magnolia grandiflora which is an American species. I first saw one in the Royal Crescent in Bath where it was planted I a basement well and grew as high as the third floor.

It has extraordinary glossy leaves and big flowers that poke out from among the leaves. They are magnificent blooms the colour of whipped butter with intricate reddish centres.

This is not one of them, I’m afraid but that does not really matter as M.sargentiana is undoubtedly gorgeous. It grows wild in some parts of the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. It has among the largest flowers of all magnolias but is not often seen in gardens – this one was photographed at the RHS Garden in Wisley.

Magnolia stellata Jane Platt

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

I know full well that the time for most magnolias is long past. When you think of magnolias most people think of springtime: dewy April mornings and trees with great gatherings of perfect flowers. A week of glory and then the flowers are gone leaving them to settle into a dowdy middle age.

However, as gardeners, it pays to be a bit organised and get ahead with the planning. Too many times I have looked at a plant in flower, thought, “My, that is a pretty thing. I must get one of those.”. I then promptly forget everything until the next year when I make exactly the same exclamation. Therefore the purpose of this marginally unseasonal grid is to nudge you into thinking ahead and ordering some magnolias. The sooner you get them in, the sooner they will flower.

Magnolia campbellii mollicomata

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

If you want to go and visit magnolia laden gardens then you should truck off to Cornwall in the spring. Book early to avoid disappointment.

Therefore, in order to give you a head start in itinerary planning, here are two of our favourite gardens for Magnolias- both of them are in Cornwall which should save a bit of travel…

  1. Trewithen – Not only a magnificent collection of magnolias this wonderful garden also boasts camellias and twenty champion trees. These are trees that are officially either the tallest or fattest of their type. Trewithen has the largest M.campbellii mollicomata (Pictured) in Britain. Go and marvel. Trewithen Gardens
, Grampound Road
, Truro, 
Cornwall, 
TR2 4DD
  2. Caerhays – 120 acres of woodland gardens which are home to a collection of Chinese plants many of which can be traced back to the work of the great plant hunters Ernest Wilson and George Forrest. J.C.Williams of Caerhays contributed the equivalent of ÂŁ300,000 to Forrest’s 1911 expedition and was rewarded with with seed from rhododendrons, acers, oaks and, of course, magnolias. The Estate Office, Caerhays, Gorran, St Austell, Cornwall, PL26 6LY

Magnolia x veitchii Columbus

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Once you have fallen in love with your magnolia you may well want to make some more. The simplest way is layering: bend a low branch to the ground, cut a notch under the branch on a leaf bud and pin it to the ground: a year or so later you will have a plant. (Details from the RHS website)

Deciduous magnolias can also be propagated from softwood cuttings in the summer. Look after rooted cuttings by careful feeding and watering before overwintering in a frost-free place. Magnolias are not easy to strike from cuttings and artificial light may be needed from summer until leaf fall if they are to be developed enough to survive the first winter.

Magnolias grow happily from seed but this is a game for the patient as they may take over 10 years to begin flowering. Collect seeds when the cones begin to split, the shiny black seeds will be covered by an orange-red fleshy covering which should be cleaned away with water. Put the cleaned seeds in a bag (with some sand) in the fridge for at least three months before sowing under cover. Fresh seed is always more successful than dry. Pot on seedlings as soon as large enough to handle and grow on in containers for two or three years before planting them in the garden.

Magnolia Gold Star

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Not all magnolias are white or pink. Admittedly that is the dominant combination but there are exceptions and this is one of them.

It has been bred from a stellata so the flowers are simple and star shaped but with buds the colour of buttermilk and flowers of the softest yellow imaginable. Like a sunbeam upon silk – actually that might be going a little bit too far but you see what I mean. Perhaps.

It grows quite fast and is much larger than the standard stellate as it can reach seven metres tall and five wide in a good site.

Magnolia Felix Jury

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Magnolias are named after the French botanist, Pierre Magnol (1638-1715). He was not one of those dashing botanists that rush around the world risking life and limb in pursuit of the perfect flower, instead he was a rather chubby fellow with an expression more suited to a disappointed bloodhound than an explorer.

He was Director and Professor of Botany at the Royal Botanic Garden in Montpelier and was the first person to publish the concept of plant families as we now know them – the idea that plants fall into groups united by their common features. A particularly tricky concept as the generally held belief at that time was that all species came about strictly according to the Book of Genesis.

There was however, one such adventurer, a certain Charles Plumier who, on finding a strikingly beautiful flowering tree on Martinique decided to name it magnolia in honour of the great botanist.

Magnolia x loebneri Merrill

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

If you are buying magnolias then most garden centres can help with the basics but if you are excited about the idea and are inspired to start your own collection then there are other places to try.

Firstly please bear in mind that if you want to grow champion specimens you will need a warm and sheltered garden with slightly acidic soil (think Cornwall or the West coast of Scotland). You can grow magnolias in pots but they will need lots of feeding and careful watering. If you must then it would be best to stick to the smaller, stellata, varieties.

For choice magnolias try:

  1. Burncoose Nurseries: a great Cornish nursery for all manner of shrubs and trees – especially those that prefer a gentler climate. The nursery is owned by the Caerhays Estate
  2. Millais Nurseries: specialists in some of the newer varieties from around the world. Breeders keep churning out new hybrids.
  3. Reads Nurseries: based in Suffolk they have been selling plants and trees since 1841. Knowledgeable and with a great range. Be warned that if you want a particular rare variety you may have to wait – there is a reason why they are rare!

Magnolia stellata

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Most gardens have room for a magnolia. One of the most popular for small gardens is Magnolia stellata – of which we have no picture but you can take my word for it – which has simple star like flowers (hence the name) and grows to about two metres high by about the same wide.

They are perfect for a front garden, maybe underplanted with species tulips or small narcissi, but, remember, the performance is over by the middle of May and, if I might be a little frank here, the leaves are a bit dull for midsummer. Lots of hardy geraniums, some ferns and Astrantia maxima should do the job.

Magnolia Iolanthe

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

This one is named after the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta of the same name. Odd though it may sound it is about a band of fairies that find themselves in a dispute with the House of Lords.

As with many of these things the plot is quite convoluted and involves a fairy (Iolanthe) who marries a human much to the disgust of her fellow fairies. As a result she spends 25 years living in a frog filled stream feeling bereft and unhappy. She is eventually forgiven and it turns out that she has a son who is fairy above the waist but with human legs (no, I don’t really get it either).

This son, Strephon, is in love with Phyllis who is the ward of the Lord Chancellor. There is much more but I do not wish to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say that all ends well and there are many jolly songs along the way. More to the point this is a lovely plant which grows to about 10m.

Magnolia Atlas

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Culturally the magnolia has, understandably, always been important: difficult to ignore anything so striking. The flowers have appeared in paintings and art work in everything from Mexican folk art to 21st Century tattoos.

Magnolia is also important in traditional medicine and has been used in various incarnations for treating rheumatism, wounds, asthma, malaria, nausea and even cracked feet and hair loss. I have no idea what the formulae and concentrations may be or even if they work so my advice is probably not to try this at home.

Magnolia wood is adaptable depending on the species from which it comes. American varieties are used for planking, boxes and wall panelling while in Japan they use M. obovata for lacquer work, furniture and engraving.

Magnolia soulangeana Alba

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Another popular variety is M.soulangeana which has very distinctive and glamorous goblet shaped flowers of soft pink. Initially bred by Etienne Soulange-Bodin who was a retired cavalry officer who, after rushing around biffing people with Napoleon, retired to grow flowers at his chateau near Paris.

The clever plant people have hybridised and crossed it to make a host of cultivars. Of which this is one…gone are the pink flowers and instead we have white and slightly shaggy petals. We are lucky in Britain to have two of the foremost magnolia experts – one is Jim Gardiner (the Executive Vice-President of the Royal Horticultural Society) whose book, “Magnolias: A Gardener’s Guide” is a bit of a bible among the cognoscenti.

The other is John Ravenscroft who is the founder of Bridgemere garden World and an acknowledged guru among the magnolia growers.

Magnolia Phelan Bright

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

How to plant

Magnolias have shallow root systems that can spread a long way, even beyond the canopy of the tree. Try not to plant too much stuff around them initially, it is better to give them some time to settle themselves into their surroundings – and don’t do too much energetic hoeing either as that too upsets the little darlings. Although, in reality there are fewer things more sublime than a flowering magnolia surrounded by an emerald lawn so you don’t need to clutter up the surroundings.

Do not plant them too deep – the surrounding soil should be at the same level as the soil in the pot in which it arrived.

How to look after them

They may look delicate and exotic but, once planted, they are pretty undemanding. Ideally they will have light, well-drained slightly acidic soil with consistent moisture: but no waterlogging. Water them in times of drought.

Magnolia Apollo

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Magnolias are native to both Asia and the Americas. If you think about it this is quite an odd bit of evolution in itself, how does a family of plants appear in two different places separated by thousands of miles of land and ocean.

The answer probably lies deep in the ancient past when the continents were all joined together and, as they separated and (over the course of millions of years) drifted apart each section took a few magnolias and the rest, as they say, is evolution.

Magnolia Copeland Court

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Steel Magnolias was a film that came out in 1989. The story revolved around a group of friends who met up regularly at Truvy’s beauty parlour in a small town in Louisiana. It had a pretty stellar female cast including Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field and Daryl Hannah. I fully realise that this is of little relevance to the magnolia in your garden but it is surprisingly difficult to find seventeen different things to write about Magnolias without repeating myself too much so bear with me for a bit here, you might learn something to give you a slight edge next time you are in a pub quiz. Then you’ll be grateful.

Among other things,magnolia is a very popular colour for painting walls. My parents seldom used any other colour. It is a colour which gets on with everything: it never argues with any of the furnishings so makes up in compatibility what it lacks in character.

Magnolia Star Wars

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Magnolias are not supposed to be pruned but you can prune if you absolutely have to – for example if they have been damaged or have seriously outgrown their position. Do this as soon as possible after flowering to make sure that there is still time for the plant to set flower buds for the following season.

However, most pruning can be avoided by thinking very carefully about planting position. It is important to get this right as they do not like being moved once they have settled themselves.

Pay careful attention to height and spread requirements when choosing a site as a squished magnolia lacks both dignity and elegance.