Wednesday, January 04, 2006

When the tree's sweet blossoms come on, it's a sunshine daydream in the winter

From San Francisco Chronicle:

When the tree's sweet blossoms come on, it's a sunshine daydream in the winter
Miriam Owen, Special to The Chronicle

There is nothing like a magnolia tree to celebrate that spring is on the way. In Northern California a mature magnolia soulangiana, commonly called the tulip magnolia, begins to open flowers in January and reaches full flowering by the end of February.

Placed in a focal spot that will show off the flowers, the tree is a sight to behold. The tree flowers before it leafs out, and the flowers appear to be floating at the tips of the bare branches. All at the same time, there are furry pregnant buds, unopened tear drop-shaped mauve buds ready to unfurl, and cup-and-saucer-shaped flowers opened with the outer petals flattened and inner petals still tightly wrapped. The contrast of the flowers with the woody branches makes this tree an unrivaled, elegant visual delight.

I have two varieties of magnolia in my own landscape. I found what I thought was the classic tulip tree, soulangiana 'Alexandrina,' but alas, it was not. The flowers have the correct mauve color, but the shape of the flowers is less orderly. It has floppy petals that often flower at an angle instead of upright and orderly like the 'Alexandrina.' It is well established, and I am happy to have it because it begins to flower when the 'Alexandrina' is in full flower.

Finding a magnolia with the desired flower can be difficult. I search for them carefully, waiting until I find one with an open flower to be sure of what I am getting. This year I want to add one more to my landscape, and I found a good selection at the Urban Tree Farm Nursery, 3010 Fulton Road, Santa Rosa.

Magnolias number in the hundreds of species and hybrid cultivars. They are native to North America and Asia. They do best in well-drained, acid soils rich in humus. They enjoy light manure feedings, growing fast if they are planted in optimum conditions. Their roots can be damaged by cultivation, so it is best to leave the surrounding soil undisturbed. Add surface feedings of amendments, then water deeply. It is best not to overfeed. Leaf color will indicate the general health of the tree.

Now is an ideal time to purchase and plant a magnolia. They are in the nurseries now with their root balls wrapped in burlap, making them slightly less expensive than those in containers. I will wait until my soil is not too soggy and plant in early spring to take advantage of the seasonal rains.

Magnolias flower in an array of colors: pink, red, purple, yellow, white and lovely combinations of mauve and white, and mauve and pink. The 'Alexandrina' that I love so much flowers in the deep mauve and creamy white combination. Set off by the gray wood of the branches, this tree in flower is the late winter star of my landscape. I am adding an identical magnolia this year, placing it next to and forward of the other one.

In about 20 years, I hope to have two mature magnolias growing with a canopy of branches that will define the visual space of a focal part of my floral landscape.

E-mail Miriam Owen at


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