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How to Grow: Magnolia
Learn about magnolia trees and shrubs, including varieties and how to plant and grow them.
Listen to Podcast:
Magnolia spp and hybrids
full sun, part sun
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Early spring with white, pink or yellow flowers
Mature Height x Spread
15 to 35 feet x 10 to 30 feet
When you say, magnolias, you normally think of movies like ‘Gone with the Wind’ with the classic, evergreen, southern magnolias. But magnolias are a diverse group of trees and there are some that grow well in New England. The most popular magnolias for our climate are the star magnolia (M. stellata) and the saucer magnolia (M. soulangiana). These are deciduous trees that aren’t as majestic as the southern magnolias, but still produce the richly fragrant flowers that we all love, especially in spring after a winter of scent deprivation. Magnolias are beautiful trees in the landscape and produce attractive red fruits in fall. The smooth, gray bark adds a nice touch to winter as well.
When, Where and How to Plant
Star magnolias are hardy to zone 4, while saucer magnolias are hardy to zone 5. Purchase trees from a local nursery and plant in spring in moist, slightly acidic, well-drained soil high in organic matter. Plant where the trees will stay cool in spring to delay flowering and reduce the chance of losing blooms with frost. Space trees 10 to 20 feet apart.
Keep young trees well watered. Mulch the base of trees in the lawn with wood chips, pine needles, or bark mulch to create a mulch ring that will keep the soil consistently moist and prevent damage to the trunk from lawn mowers and string trimmers. Fertilize trees in spring with acid loving tree plant food.
Regional Advice and Care
One of the biggest problems with magnolias in New England is their early blooming habit. Flowers and buds are often killed in late spring frosts. To delay flowering, plant on the east side of the building and mulch the trees well to keep the ground cool. Magnolia scale and the resulting sooty mold fungus are often a problem. Spray trees with horticultural oil to control the scale insect.
Companion Planting and Design
Plant large trees in the lawn as a specimen or on the side of a garage protected from the cold winds. Plant small trees in a mixed shrub border with other early bloomers, such as forsythia.
‘Alexandrina’ is a popular saucer magnolia with 10-inch diameter white flowers tinged with rose-purple coloring. ‘Brozzoni’ has 8-inch wide white flowers that bloom 2 weeks later than other saucer magnolias. For star magnolias, ‘Centennial’ is one of the most popular with white flowers, touched with pink on a 25 feet tall tree. ‘Royal Star’ only grows 10 feet tall and the white flowers open a little later than other star magnolias. ‘Jane’ features dark pink flower buds. ‘Leonard Messel’ grows to 15 feet tall with dark purple flower buds that open to white. ‘Elizabeth’ is a cross that features unusual yellow flowers on a 20-foot tall tree.
Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.
When I think of magnolias, memories of Grateful Dead concerts and Gone with the Wind come to mind. While this prehistoric tree is indigenous to the Southern United States, we can also grow some varieties here. And why not, newer, hardy dwarf varieties make the trees more manageable in small spaces. Plus, the large flowers are loaded with fragrance. “Ahh Sugar magnolia, ringing that bluebell, caught up in the sunlight, come on out singing.”
The key with growing magnolias in the North is variety selection and placement. Southern evergreen magnolias aren’t hardy here, but many deciduous ones are to zone 4. For large trees try the saucer magnolias, such as ‘Centennial’. They can reach up to 20 feet tall with light pink flowers. The shorter Loebner magnolias, such as ‘Merrill’, have light colored flowers but are shorter and bloom two weeks later so are less likely to get killed by spring frosts. The Little Girl series, such as ‘Betty’ and ‘Ann’, have darker pink colored flowers and only grow into large bushes, about 10 feet tall. They’re more colorful than the traditional white flowered star magnolias. In zone 5 areas, you can even try the yellow flowered ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia that grows 20 feet tall.
Once you have the variety, plant your tree on well-drained soil in full sun. Plant in an East facing, protected location and mulch with wood chips to slow the flower buds opening in spring. Late spring frosts and high winds can quickly ruin the spring flower show.
Watch for sooty mold and magnolia scale on trees. Sooty mold is a fungus that forms when aphids are feeding. Spray insecticidal soap to kill the aphids. Magnolia scale looks like small bumps on the bark. Spray horticultural oil to stop their feeding.