Magnificent Magnolias

Those sweet magnolia blossoms come at a very sweet time in Southern California. They bloom against February's leaden skies, seemingly descending upon the winter garden like a welcome flock of doves, even though, at other times of the year--particularly in late summer--deciduous magnolias are not the prettiest of plants.

The first known description of a deciduous magnolia, by one P. M. Cibot in 1778, gave them a mixed review, comparing a magnolia tree to "a naked Walnut tree with a Lily at the end of every branch." And, indeed, they are coarse, twiggy trees--bare much of the year, even in the most favorable climates. And Southern California is not their favorite climate. They are woodland plants, and our desert soil and water is a bit alkaline for their liking, the August sun a trifle too hot. As a result, their leaves often yellow and brown at the edges or even fall before autumn arrives. Nevertheless, when magnolias are in bloom, all that is forgiven. Those big, voluptuous flowers are in a class by themselves.

If you're lucky enough to still have a copy of Life Magazine's wonderful book, "The World We Live In," turn to Page 103 (1955 edition) and you'll see deciduous magnolias being munched on by a triceratops. Magnolias are considered to be the most primitive of woody plants and have remained relatively unchanged over the course of the last 100 million years, since the days of the dinosaurs. They have the largest individual flowers of any temperate plant and the most primitive form of flower structure. Look closely at a magnolia blossom and you'll find it difficult to identify the various parts that are found on more-familiar flowers. A magnolia is a very simple affair.

Bothered by their leaf edges turning brown at the end of summer? One solution is to think carefully about where a deciduous magnolia is to be planted in the garden. Dead center is not an ideal place--but planted along some edge, with the sky as a backdrop, or against a dark green mass of foliage, a magnolia can be very dramatic. Magnolias tend to stand out when that is what's wanted but will hardly be noticed if their fortunes wane. Another favored location is against the north side of a house, since most deciduous magnolias can tolerate a fair amount of shade and still bloom, provided that there is adequate light from overhead. They can also be planted under high-branching, deep-rooted trees, since most magnolias are short. And the prettiest deciduous magnolias seem to be grow in gardens that are protected from wind by other mature trees.

Magnolia roots run close to the surface, so it is difficult to grow anything under them; obviously, you should never cultivate there. Magnolias prefer a woodsy soil that's full of organic matter, the kind of soil that would make an azalea happy. A two-inch mulch is beneficial, and deep watering--to flush salts from the soil--is the rule, especially during the summer.

However, the largest planting of deciduous magnolias--a growing collection of American and Oriental species and cultivars at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia--breaks all those rules. Planted away from any protection, in full sun and with minimal soil preparation, they are thriving. They bloom about now and are worth a visit.

Pictured on Pages 12-13 is a sampling of the arboretum's magnolias. Few of these will be found at nurseries, but the arboretum will be selling magnolias this month from the best-known grower in the Pacific Northwest, Gossler Farms Nursery, 1200 Weaver Road, Springfield, Ore. 97477, which also sells by mail order. On sale will be many of the magnolias pictured here and several others. Prices will range from $5 to $50, depending on size and rarity, and several hundred will be on hand. Magnolias need several years of growth before they are old enough to bloom, so if you buy a very young plant, be patient.

What you may find at nurseries (and at the arboretum) are two of the most common: Magnolia soulangiana and M. stellata .

In Southern California, the saucer magnolia, M. soulangiana , grows slowly to become a small, 15- to 20-foot-tall tree. Flowers are at least six inches across, but unless you are buying a named variety such as Grace McDade, which has flowers nearly a foot across, or Alexandrina, which is a rich purplish-pink on the outside of the flowers, you are never sure of what you are getting. The plant is extremely variable and is, in fact, a man-made hybrid with an obscure ancestry (although the first plants originated in the mid-1800s at Etienne Soulange-Boudin's nursery in Fromont, France). The saucer magnolia is the most rugged and easiest to grow of all deciduous magnolias.

The star magnolia, M. stellata , is almost as easy, and though it can become a tree in time, it is most often a large, 8- to 10-foot shrub (again in time) in Southern California. It is native to the mountains of Southern Honshu in Japan. The flowers are like large, white stars, and they are preceded by cute, fuzzy buds. The variety called Royal Star blooms later than plain stellata , has more petals and is supposedly a quicker grower. The arboretum also will have quite a few plants of Magnolia loebneri for sale. These are hybrids of the star magnolia and another, with fewer but larger flowers. This magnolia seldom grows taller than a big bush (eight feet). The Leonard Messel variety has pink flowers; Dr. Merrill has white.

Other magnolias for sale at the arboretum:

Magnolia quinquepeta Nigra (alias M. liliiflora ) is an old-fashioned magnolia with narrow, upright, tulip-shaped flowers on a bush about eight feet tall. Nigra is a dark selection of almost-purple red.

Magnolia Randy is one of the National Arboretum's "The Girls" series of M. stellata hybrids, with dark purple-red flowers that bloom a little later in the season than most.

Magnolia Picture is more upright and narrow than other magnolias, with purple-red buds that open to a pinkish white.

Magnolia Royal Crown was developed in Santa Cruz and is a heavy, consistent bloomer with ten-inch, reddish-violet flowers.

Magnolia sprengeri Diva has brilliant, ten-inch, rosy-pink flowers on a tree that can grow to 25 feet.

Still other magnolias to consider:

Magnolia heptapeta , the Yulan magnolia, has six-inch, pure-white, tulip-shaped flowers on a tree about 25 feet tall. Though the brightly colored magnolias are popular in other parts of the country, here in the Southland we have many brightly colored flowering trees, and a pure-white bloomer offers a welcome relief, especially in the middle of the winter. This is at least one good gardener's favorite magnolia for Southern California and the first to have been cultivated in China.

Magnolia Galaxy is a recent hybrid that Gossler Farms Nursery calls "the Peace rose of magnoliadom," with "no flaws" and reddish-purple flowers that are nine inches across. It is more treelike in shape and size than most (though still under 20 feet tall). It became an instant hit, and there are no plants available anywhere this year, although the arboretum is ordering some for next year.

Magnolia veitchii , a cross of M. heptapeta and another, is perhaps the fastest growing and largest (to 30 feet) magnolia grown here. Its flowers, about ten inches across, are pictured on this week's cover.

Magnolia macrophylla, the big-leaf magnolia, is aptly named; its huge apple-green leaves are one to two feet long--sometimes even larger. Its flowers are proportionately as big--twice the size of the common evergreen Southern magnolia and similar in appearance. It is slow growing, but several old Southern California trees have reached a height of 40 feet or more.

Michelia doltsopa --surprise!--is not a magnolia at all, but we include it here because it is even easier to grow; it is an evergreen with large, leathery, dark-green leaves; and it has flowers much like the saucer magnolia (though they are partially hidden by foliage). It even blooms at the time that magnolias do. It likes lots of water and a rich soil and grows to about 30 feet--slowly. People who do not like deciduous trees but do like those sweet magnolia blossoms should consider it an alternative.

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