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Oriental Magnolias Brighten Late-Winter Days
by Dan Gill
by Dan Gill

email: dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu

Dan Gill earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in horticulture from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and is an Associate Professor in Consumer Horticulture with the LSU AgCenter.

He is the spokesperson for the LSU AgCenter’s Get It Growing project, a statewide educational effort in home horticulture utilizing radio, Internet, TV and newsprint. Gardeners throughout Louisiana read his columns in local newspapers, watch his gardening segments on local TV stations and listen to him on local radio. In the New Orleans area, Dan appears weekly on the Channel 4 Morning News, writes a weekly gardening column for The Times-Picayune and hosts the Saturday morning WWWL Garden Show, a live call-in radio program.

Dan is co-author of the Louisiana Gardener’s Guide and author of Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana. His “South Louisiana Region Report” and “Only in Louisiana” columns appear monthly in the Louisiana Gardener Magazine.


March 6, 2011

Many small flowering trees help brighten our landscapes from late winter through spring. One of the more beautiful of our early-spring flowering trees is in bloom now.

Commonly called the Oriental magnolia, its fat, furry flower buds open in February or March before the foliage emerges. Unlike the native Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), the Oriental magnolia is deciduous and drops its leaves in winter. The flowers are large and showy and come in a variety of colors, such as white, lavender-pink, rose-purple, dark reddish purple and light yellow. The brightest color is on the outside of the petals, while the inner surface tends to be creamy white. The flowers range in size from about 4 to 6 inches across – but they’re sometimes larger. Oriental magnolia trees generally grow to be about 15 to 25 feet tall with a spread of 10 to 15 feet.

When the flowers are young, the petals are held fairly upright – giving the flowers a distinctively tulip-like appearance. As the flowers age, the petals tend to open up and lay down, creating a more saucer-shaped flower. The flowers have a spicy to musky fragrance.

The Latin name for the Oriental magnolia is Magnolia x soulangiana. The “x” in the middle of the name indicates that this is a hybrid rather than a true species. The Oriental magnolias we grow are the result of a cross between two Chinese species, Magnolia liliiflora (lily magnolia) and Magnolia denudata (white saucer or Yulan magnolia).

Even though they are blooming, now is a great time to plant Oriental magnolias if you want to add one to your landscape. The weather is still cool, and hot summer weather is still at least two months away. That means it is possible to select a tree in bloom at the nursery. This is important because a number of varieties are available with different flower colors and shapes.

Selecting and planting

When you go to the nursery, you likely will see several varieties of Oriental magnolias available. One called Alexandria is popular and common. It produces the classic, light purplish-pink flowers typically seen in these plants. You may also see Susan (deep purplish-red), Betty (rosy-pink) or Jane (reddish-purple with slightly twisted petals). These varieties tend to be shrubbier and bloom somewhat later – which minimizes the chance they will be damaged by a freeze. All of the varieties available at your local nursery should do well here. You can make your selection based on flower color and shape and growth habit of the tree.

When selecting Oriental magnolias, you will notice that the trees are generally grown with numerous trunks. It is common to grow these small trees with several trunks, but too many makes the plant look untidy. Generally, during the second and third years after planting, thin the number of trunks to about five for a more attractive tree.

Plant Oriental magnolias in a well-drained (this is important), sunny-to-partly-sunny location. Make sure you don’t plant it too close to a building – it will need room to spread about 10 or 15 feet. Dig a hole just as deep as the root ball and two or three times its width. Take the tree out of its container and set it in the hole. The top of the root ball must be level or slightly above the surrounding soil. Thoroughly pulverize the soil you removed to make the hole and use it to backfill around the roots, firming gently as you go. And be sure to add nothing to the backfill soil. Finally, water the area thoroughly to finish settling the soil, add more soil if necessary and mulch the area 2 or 3 inches thick. If the tree is tall enough to be unstable, stake it to provide support for about a year.

Care after planting

Like all newly planted trees, young trees should be watered regularly during hot, dry weather this summer. No fertilizer is required the first year, but you may begin fertilizing next spring.

As the years go by and the tree grows taller, gradually remove the lower branches to raise the canopy to the desired height, generally 8 to 10 feet above the ground.

Oriental magnolias, particularly during the first several years after planting, frequently look terrible in late summer from about July until they drop their leaves. This is mostly due to stress during the early years when the trees are getting established. The foliage gets spots and scorched edges and may even drop early. This is exacerbated by dry weather, and proper irrigation will help.

Don’t expect these trees to grow quickly. Growth rate is moderate and improves over the years as trees get better established. If a tree grows very little and stays rather stunted after several years in the ground, it may not like the location you selected for it. In that situation, moving it sometimes helps.

Other magnolias

Another species that blooms in spring is the star magnolia, Magnolia stellata. The tree is smaller – more like a large shrub – and the flowers are typically white, star-shaped and very fragrant. A variety called Dr. Merrill produces especially large, attractive flowers and is generally available at nurseries.

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