Japanese Magnolias: An Oriental Surprise

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Bring a touch of class to your garden with Japanese magnolias. Natives to China and Japan, these small oriental trees are fast becoming a favorite in the South, as they add color and interest throughout much of the year. Japanese magnolias (Magnolia x soulangiana) are bred in different sizes and hues today, but on the whole are praised for their large, saucer like blossoms that open in late winter and early spring. The essence of Asia can certainly be seen among these elegant trees as every January and February, creamy white flowers blushed with rose or purple gracefully adorn the long, slender stems of the otherwise naked trees.

In Asian countrysides, saucer magnolias can be found lining the banks of quiescent streams and ponds, as they grow amid other oriental favorites like Japanese maples, azaleas, and Pieris japonica. One by one in early spring, petals fall like soft, cottony feathers to carpet the ground, leaving only their reflections of faded rose and white in the adjacent flowing waters. Shoots of bright green emerge soon after to completely clothe the once bare limbs, and spring continues to take its course. In Louisiana, we might not be blessed with such serene sights and settings, but that certainly should not stop us from bringing a piece of natural eloquence into our gardens.

Japanese magnolias, depending on the variety, grow 15 to 20 feet tall. With their informal, vase-like structures—most are sold with multiple trunks—these small trees can spread up to 15 feet across when given adequate space. Although the dense lush foliage provides exceptional color and texture during the spring and summer, the attractive open form of the trees can only be appreciated in the winter months. The relaxed postures of the trees are made further appealing in the winter when their smooth, silvery-gray trunks become center stage. Prominent fuzzy silver buds cap the ends of each node and limb, where new life bursts forth in the spring, thereby accentuating the bark even more.

Saucer magnolias are slow to moderately fast growing and perform best in full sunlight and well-drained soil. Plant them as accent trees or large shrubs by the corner of your house, near your water garden, or front and center in your lawn; no matter where you incorporate them, their captivating presence is sure to please. Tried and true cultivars for Louisiana include ‘Jane’, ‘Ann’, ‘Galaxy’, and ‘Elizabeth’. ‘Jane’ magnolia, the most widely planted variety in our area, averages 12 to 15 feet tall. Its slightly perfumed six-inch blossoms begin opening in January with creamy white on the inside and rich, reddish purple on the exterior.

Similarly, the breathtaking blooms of ‘Ann’ look almost as if they have been carefully dipped in a glass of merlot. This cultivar flowers a bit later however, since oftentimes the first bud may not completely open until early February. Different from ‘Jane’, ‘Ann’ reaches only eight to ten feet in height, and retains darker green leaves that are delicately tainted with rusty purple hues.

‘Galaxy’ magnolias reach up to 35 feet tall and can spread almost 20 feet wide. Unlike most saucer magnolias, ‘Galaxy’ can easily be trained as a standard, meaning it will work well as a single-trunk tree. This charming variety blooms a profusion of large, reddish purple flowers in the early spring; its delayed flowering allows it to avoid any serious frost damage near the close of winter.

For a true surprise and a rare find in the magnolia family, consider planting ‘Elizabeth’ magnolias. In late winter their elegant tapered buds burst open clear lemon-yellow blossoms, much like those of primroses. Growing to 25 feet, ‘Elizabeth’ holds a gorgeous, upright pyramid shape. Complement the bright yellow of ‘Elizabeth’ by planting a ‘Royal Star’ magnolia (Magnolia stellata) nearby. The perfect companion, it averages eight feet in height, and blooms pristine white blossoms in late winter. As its name suggests, the flowers of the star magnolia, at full maturity, consist of thin strap-like petals that resemble the brilliance of stars. Include also a living wall of Confederate jasmine as an evergreen backdrop for the magnolias; their profusion of tiny white star-shaped flowers offers a heady aroma when they open in early spring. Other excellent companion plants include lavender ‘Formosa’ azaleas, blue agapanthus, and blue plumbago.

If you are in search of striking companions for the reddish-purple magnolias, consider planting ‘Burgundy’ Loropetalum on either side, since it provides rich color and bold texture throughout the year; the burgundy foliage is a perfect match for the pinkish white found in the magnolia flowers. Blue agapanthus and upright ruellia (also called Mexican petunia) look charming beneath the magnolias as well. Train evergreen wisteria (Millettia reticulata) on a wall or trellis behind the trees for additional wine-colored blooms.

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