Magnolias are magnificent flowering plants featuring blossoms in white, pink, red, purple, or a more recent development, rich yellow. These plants show a remarkable variety of leaf shapes and plant forms. New varieties and hybrids appear every year, but distribution is spotty in local nurseries. Many more kinds are available from mail-order specialists.
Magnolias include both evergreen and deciduous types. Most have large, striking blossoms composed of petal-like segments, but a few are grown for use as foliage plants.
For any magnolia, choose the planting site carefully—virtually all of these trees are hard to move once established. Magnolias never look their best when crowded. Pick a location where the shallow, fleshy roots won’t be damaged by digging or by soil compaction from constant foot traffic. All magnolias may be used as lawn trees; try to provide a good-size grass-free area around the trunk, and don’t plant under the tree.
Magnolias appreciate fairly rich, well-drained, neutral to slightly acid soil amended with plenty of organic matter at planting time. They will grow in somewhat alkaline soil but may develop chlorosis. At least in the early years, keep a cooling mulch over the root area.
Irrigate deeply and thoroughly, but don’t waterlog the soil or the tree will drown. Only M. virginiana can take constantly wet soil.
Feed trees if new growth is scanty or weak, or if you see significant dieback despite adequate watering and drainage; use a controlled-release product. Treat chlorosis (lack of iron—common in alkaline soils—that shows up as yellowing between leaf veins) with iron chelates.
Leaf damage can result from excess mineral salts in the soil or salts in irrigation water. The latter is a problem in Southern California and, typically, the factor limiting success of magnolias in desert regions. Frequent heavy waterings will help leach out salts and carry them to lower soil levels—as long as drainage is good.
This evergreen grows to 90 ft. tall in its native Himalayas; in San Francisco, it has grown to 25 ft. in as many years. Varies from bushy (nearly as wide as high) to narrow and upright (about half as broad as tall); choose plants for the desired form, then prune to shape. Thin-textured, leathery dark green leaves 3–8 in. long, 1–3 in. wide. In winter and spring, furry brown buds open to fragrant blossoms ranging from cream colored to white, with a slight green tinge at the base; they are 5–7 in. across, with 12 to 16 segments, each 1 in. wide.
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