A MAGNOLIA IN BLOOM is an impressive sight. According to people who measure this sort of thing, scientists estimate that magnolias have been around for about 100 million years. Yet their opulent floral display never gets old.
Depending on the variety, magnolias put on a season-spanning show that begins in earliest spring and continues well into summer. While some magnolias grow enormous, the following varieties are well-suited to the home landscape. Pro tip: While magnolias are hardy, some early-blooming varieties might be subject to frost and wind damage in exposed locations.
Magnolia bloom season begins in early spring with the starburstlike blooms of star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). Strappy white petals adorn bare branches on a rounded shrub with a twiggy branching habit that grows to 10-by-12 feet in 10 years.
A few weeks later, blooms appear on Loebner magnolia (Magnolia × loebneri), but interest begins in winter, as fuzzy buds hint at the show to come. Soft pink blooms on the cultivar ‘Leonard Messel’ flutter in the slightest breeze and are noted for their frost resistance. Loebner magnolia forms a graceful small tree, available in nurseries as a single or multitrunk form.
Saucer magnolias (Magnolia × soulangeana) are divas — in a good way. It’s sometimes referred to as a tulip tree, for obvious reasons, given the great goblets of white, pink to brilliant magenta blooms that appear on bare branches, spilling their fragrance in the spring garden before dropping their petals in a theatrical swoon. Deep rose-pink buds on the cultivar ‘Rustica Rubra’ open to reveal languid white blooms for a showy bicolor display. Growth is rounded, about as wide as tall, maturing at 25-by-25 feet.
The hybrid Magnolia ‘Galaxy’ features enormous dark reddish-purple blooms that appear two to three weeks later than other large flowering magnolias, providing insurance against frost damage. A narrow upright habit makes ‘Galaxy’ a good fit for small gardens, and the cultivar begins flowering at an early age.
Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ is an exception to the pink-rose-white magnolia color palette. Elegant primrose yellow flowers open in late April to early May. Blooms have a slight but pleasing musky fragrance and fade to an appealing dark cream.
For more inspiration, or simply a magnolia flower fix, visit the University of Washington Botanic Gardens, where the collection is recognized as one of the best in western North America. According to Ray Larson, UWBG curator of living collections, most of the collection is in Washington Park Arboretum, with some nice examples in the landscape surrounding the Center for Urban Horticulture. “We’re lucky to have many mature specimens at the Arboretum that are 50 to 70 years old, and some great examples of bigger species not often seen in gardens,” he says.
Larson says mid- to late March is prime viewing season for many of the Asian species, and he recommends exploring the upper part of Rhododendron Glen and the Loderi Valley to take in the spectacle of oversized blooms on bare branches before many of the other trees have even leafed out.
The showiest blooms appear in early to mid-April. When you begin seeing magnolias flowering in landscapes around town, that’s your cue to head to the arboretum to catch peak bloom. The main magnolia section is a short 10-minute walk south of the visitors’ center and includes one of the arboretum’s own horticultural introductions. “Magnolia × kewensis ‘Wada’s Memory’ is one of the best whites and is especially floriferous,” Larson says.
Later in spring, bloom continues more demurely, when Magnolia wilsonii and M. sieboldii, a couple of Larson’s favorite species, produce fragrant, nodding white flowers with pink to crimson stamens. Magnolia flowering season wraps up in June and into July, when the fragrant sweetbay (M. virginiana) and evergreen Southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) bloom. Download a map of the arboretum at botanicgardens.uw.edu.