As a child growing up in Manhattan, Illinois, I gazed out my bedroom window and directly into the canopy of a majestic saucer magnolia. Every spring, before a single leaf appeared on the tree, its fat, fuzzy flower buds exploded into a spectacle of color and fragrance. Although I admired the sturdy bur oaks that were native to the state, they lacked the beauty, grace, and drama of that magnolia’s upswept pink-and-white blossoms. I have no doubt that the tree outside my window began my lifelong love of the genus Magnolia.
A wide variety of magnolia species and cultivars, including several native species, can be grown in almost every region of North America. Many flower at a young age—it’s not unusual to find trees in bloom for sale at garden centers—and quickly become a significant presence in the landscape. Magnolias range in size from large shrubs to massive trees. Many have intensely fragrant flowers. Most of the cultivated types are deciduous, but there are evergreen species, too, such as the familiar southern magnolia. In recent decades, great advancements in magnolia breeding have added canary yellow to the typical color range of white, pink, and purple flowers. The latest breeding goal is a true red magnolia.
One of the most prized magnolias—and the tree of my childhood memory—is the saucer magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana. This magnolia has the quintessential magnolia flower, 5 to 10 inches in diameter and made up of several large tepals. (The showy part of magnolia flowers is technically composed of tepals, not petals.) The fragrant flowers, usually pink or purple, appear in early spring before the leaves emerge and sit atop the branches facing skywards. M. x soulangeana is a hybrid between white-flowering M. denudata and M. liliiflora, a smaller tree with dark purple flowers. The saucer is one of the hardiest species, thriving as far north as USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5b and doing equally well on the west and east coasts and in the Midwest. It will reach 30 to 40 feet tall at maturity with an equal spread. My favorite cultivars include ‘Alexandrina’, which has tepals that are white on the inside and purple on the exterior; ‘Brozzoni’, white with a rose-purple base; ‘Lilliputian’, a smaller form with diminutive flowers; and ‘Norbertii’, with soft pink flowers.
The Yulan magnolia (M. denudata, hardy to Zone 5b) is one of the earliest magnolias to bloom in spring. Because of their precocious nature, the fragrant, creamy white flowers are susceptible to frost damage. However, this medium-sized tree (to 30 feet) is a welcome addition to any garden.