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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then

Plant Life
The Magic of Magnolias
Showy flowers and luxurious leaves cast their springtime spell
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The plump, fuzzy buds of a Magnolia stellata split open to allow the spidery white blossoms to emerge in early springtime.
I may be going out on a limb, but it seems to me that magnolias, in all their glory and variety, must be the finest of all garden trees. I'll probably be engulfed in e-mail from crabapple and ornamental cherry enthusiasts, to say nothing of the lovers of laburnums and the birches-are-best bunch. All are lovely trees, but do they come in evergreen and deciduous, and in a procession of cultivars that bloom from March through late summer?

Magnolias have sheaves of fragrant, showy flowers, and all the refinement we expect from Asian trees. Whether large and spreading like the rosy pink Campbell magnolia (M. campbellii) or more compact like the star magnolia (M. stellata), each has a naturally graceful shape that requires little or no pruning. Magnolia grandiflora and its many cultivars have luxuriantly large, glossy leaves whose undersides are handsomely coated in soft, coppery-brown suede. Unlike the cherries and plums that bloom so early in the spring, many of the magnolias flower later and on into July and August when you're out in the garden to fully appreciate the exotic lemony scent of their waxy blossoms. A curvaceously cupped magnolia blossom serenely floating in a low bowl of water is a sight as evocative of midsummer as Seafair.

The deciduous magnolias are elegant of line in the winter garden, and their fuzzy gray buds begin to plump up late in January, slowly splitting open to reveal snow white or rosy pink blossoms. I cut the branches early in the year to force in the house because the slow unfolding of bud to bloom is enchanting to watch up close.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Yellow skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) does smell a bit musty, but its odor is more than made up for by its dazzling yellow spring color and impressive summer leafiness. In a boggy spot, or in the margins of a stream bed, this Northwest native plant spreads to form large, showy colonies. The curved, glowing yellow spathe wraps around a club of male and female flowerlets blooming for a full month in early spring, followed in summer by lots of wide leaves that look like fat, green beaver tails rising directly out of the ground.
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Magnolias are largely disease- and pest-resistant, and thrive in full sun to part shade. They prefer good drainage (although M. grandiflora is more tolerant of heavy soil) and regular watering, and appreciate plenty of compost and manure. The best time to transplant is early in the spring just as new growth begins, but magnolias prefer not to be moved once established. And be aware that even the smaller magnolias can grow startlingly large. Years ago I was amazed to see the heft and height of a majestic star magnolia at the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden in Shoreline, and I came home and moved my young tree to a roomier location.

The most familiar magnolia, seen throughout older Seattle neighborhoods, is the early-blooming saucer magnolia or tulip tree (Magnolia x soulangeana) with spreading limbs coated with pink-flushed flowers in March. Another early bloomer is the star magnolia, which has strappy flowers in pure white or pale pink. The cultivar 'Waterlily' is considered one of the best star magnolias, with pink buds opening to spidery-shaped fragrant white flowers, but it blooms a little later and grows a bit faster than most star magnolias.

Four magnolias were selected by the Great Plant Picks experts this year as ideal trees for our climate. The Yulan magnolia (M. denudata) is an especially showy tree, famous for being planted around ancient Chinese temples. It has goblet-shaped ivory flowers that bloom in great masses in late April, then a repeat, if less prolific, flower display in summer. It grows to 45 feet high and 30 feet wide over many years.

Crimson stamen center each creamy, cup-shaped blossom of Magnolia sieboldii. The buds dot the branches like little lanterns, opening in mid-spring and blooming through late summer, followed by bright pink seedpods. This much smaller tree (to 15 feet tall and wide) prefers at least part shade. Magnolia x kewensis 'Wada's Memory' stays under 20 feet, with ivory mid-spring flowers set off by coppery red new leaves.

Magnolia 'Elizabeth' surprises with soft yellow flowers that stretch half a foot wide when fully open. Picture that: a 40-foot tree with a generous splay of bare branches glossed with the sheen of new green leaves at the same time it is coated with huge, sweetly scented, butter-colored flowers. It must be time to go outside and worship spring.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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