A fine magnolia is in bloom now, and it’s a beauty. But this is distinctly different from the large evergreen trees called Southern magnolia that first come to mind.
Instead of being a large, dense evergreen, this one is a deciduous plant that becomes either a twiggy large shrub or small tree. Commonly called star magnolia (botanically it is Magnolia stellate), it bears white flowers that opened even as the snow fell last weekend. These flowers have petals that are loosely arranged around small yellow centers, giving the effect of a layered, multipointed star.
This is one of those plants that one scarcely notices except in bloom and briefly in autumn for its fall foliage. I suppose that is a demerit. But this plant is so pretty when it blooms – seemingly out of nowhere – in late February that one forgets its anonymity the rest of the year.
It is especially useful for small properties because of its size. Most star magnolias mature at about 12 to 15 feet, though some named selections such as the Waterlily are a few feet shorter. The plant tends to grow almost as wide as it is tall, with a lot of branches, which gives the effect of a large shrub rather than a small tree. A dark background such as a red brick wall really makes the flowers stand out.
The fragrant flowers appear before the leaves, as is the case with many early-blooming trees and shrubs, and the petals of star magnolia (botanically called tepals) are quite hardy, which is important for flowers this time of year.
A star magnolia requires sun and won’t grow well with shade or in the root zone of large trees. It requires good soil that is well-drained. Growth is slow: One that I have been watching in my neighborhood for many years still has not reached a mature size.
Not all star magnolias bear white flowers. Pink Stardust is pale pink; Chrysanthemiflora is a more vivid pink.
As the flowers mature, new deep green foliage emerges, which is pretty. Once the flowers are gone, the plant stands quietly through the summer. But in autumn, the foliage turns bronze, which adds to its ornamental value.
Another deciduous magnolia follows star magnolia. This is Magnolia soulangeana, the saucer or tulip magnolia, which tends to bloom in March. But it makes a very large tree, 20 to 30 feet tall after many years. It is a beauty too, but will take a lot of space.