Just the name “magnolia” evokes images of southern mansions, mint juleps, and massive southern magnolias with tropical-looking evergreen foliage and huge, creamy-white flowers. There are, however, a plethora of other magnolias, many with Asian origins, which display bold masses of color and are hardy even in the northernmost states.
The star magnolia, Magnolia stellata, is a multistemmed Japanese import that grows to about 15 feet tall with a 10-foot spread. Its fragrant, white, star-shape flowers are tinged with pink. Another early-season beauty is the saucer magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana. It can grow to 30 feet tall with an equal spread. Large, pink to purple, cup-shape flowers cover this multistemmed tree. While both magnolias are quite hardy, their flowers are often nipped by a late-spring frost in northern climates. To solve this problem, plant breeders developed the Little Girl hybrids by crossing the star magnolia with the lily magnolia, Magnolia liliiflora. The eight Little Girl hybrids—‘Ann’, ‘Betty’, ‘Jane’, ‘Judy’, ‘Pinkie’, ‘Randy’, ‘Ricki’, and ‘Susan’—were named for the wives and daughters of the breeders who developed them. They are all shrublike and multistemmed, grow to about 10 to 15 feet, and flower a few weeks later than the star or saucer magnolias. The Little Girls all leaf out after they flower in eye-catching shades of pink, purple, and red.
Another group of hardy late bloomers are the yellow-flowering magnolias, which grow to about 15 feet. They were created by crossing an American variety, Magnolia acuminata (cucumber tree), with several Asian varieties. ‘Elizabeth’ was the first yellow magnolia.
Magnolias are surprisingly easy to grow. They are bothered by few pests and rarely, if ever, need pruning. Plant them at a sunny site that has plenty of organic matter. They are shallow-rooted, so they need to be watered in hot, dry weather, especially while they become established. A light layer of mulch will help to protect the roots and keep the soil from drying out.
Magnolias are an ideal plant for next to a deck or patio, where you can enjoy their fragrance and beauty while relaxing and sipping lemonade—or maybe even a mint julep or two.