Magnolias are an option for gardens big and small

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Mississippi state tree, the magnolia, was once described by Dr. Alexander Garden in 1757 as the finest and most superb evergreen earth has ever produced.

These stately trees are planted at every major entrance leading into the state, public parks, commercial sites and homes. While this species remains a favorite, hosts of others can add new beauty to a garden.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and Master Flower Show judge, has been active in the Openwood Plantation Garden Club for over 35 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.

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Magnolias are like Father Time, very old, according to Rosemary Barrett, author of “Magnolias.” Fossilized magnolia remains have been found from 100 million years ago, when the Arctic Circle had a moderate climate. When the climate changed, the polar ice cap expanded and many plants perished. But magnolias survived in North America, China, Japan and India. Their descendants are the 125 species of the modern magnolia genus.

Introduced into Southern gardens in 1832, magnolia soulangiana still wows gardeners each spring. A hybrid of the Chinese species M. denudata and M. liliflora, it was developed by one of Napoleon’s retired cavalry officers in France around 1820. It remains the best known, Barrett says.

Commonly known as the Japanese magnolia, Japanese tulip tree or saucer magnolia in our area, this deciduous multi-trunk shrub or small tree is not too exciting during the winter or summer. It is during the week to 10 days in March when the fuzzy winter buds burst open and bare branches become host to hundreds of purple, pink or white blooms, depending on the cultivar. Resembling a tulip blossom, more than 100 selections are on the market.

Snow white, fragrant blooms make magnolia stellata, or the star magnolia, an ideal choice for small courtyards, borders and entryways. The recently introduced Centennial and Rosea are pink-toned cultivars of this species that exhibit strap-like, twisted petals. Plant them with a northern exposure to delay blooming and avoid frost damage. Colors range from deep to pale purple.

Creamy-white scented blooms appear from June to September on magnolia virginiana, or the Sweet Bay. Native to swamps in our state, this hardy tree is good for wet trouble spots.

Magnolias do best in rich, well-drained soil, neutral to slightly acid. Choose a location carefully, as they are hard to move.