Magnolia Magic

Bearing oversized, flamboyant blossoms, magnolias are among the most glamorous of trees.

By Andrew Bunting


'Elizabeth' was the first yellow hybrid magnoliaUsing M. acuminata as a parent, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden developed ‘Elizabeth’, the first yellow-flowering hybrid—considered the holy grail of magnolias when it was introduced in 1978. Subsequent hybridizing has resulted in more than 30 yellow magnolias on the market today. One of my favorites is ‘Butterflies’, which has up to 16 primrose yellow tepals and is hardy to Zone 5. All the yellow magnolias bloom late, so there is rarely an issue with the flowers being frosted.

‘Judy Zuk’ (Zone 5) is a more recently released yellow cultivar that resulted from a complex cross of M. stellata, M. liliiflora, and M. acuminata. The resulting hybrid bears stunning tulip-shaped flowers that are yellow suffused with pink. The fragrance is best described as tropical and fruity. The stature of the plant is very narrow and upright, making it perfect for tight spaces.

Of the North American native magnolias, the southern magnolia (M. grandiflora, Zone 6) is arguably the most popular. In the South, this evergreen tree can reach close to 100 feet. The leaves are large and shiny; several cultivars have an attractive brown “fuzz” or indumentum on the underside of the leaves. Southern magnolia is a wonderful specimen or screening tree. ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ has a distinct pyramidal habit, shiny leaves, and rich brown indumentum. ‘Kay Parris’ is a diminutive selection for smaller gardens.

Most magnolias grow best in full sun and soil that is high in organic matter. Although most prefer well-drained soil, sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana, Zone 5) is an exception that can tolerate poor drainage. It can grow at the edge of ponds or in marshy conditions. Native from Massachusetts to Florida, it is a beautiful addition to the landscape for those who prefer natives. Some cultivars are more evergreen than others, such as ‘Henry Hicks’ and ‘Green Shadow’. The relatively small ivory white flowers are intensely perfumed with a lemony-sweet scent, beginning in May and continuing sporadically throughout the summer. Sweetbay magnolia can be grown with a single trunk or as a multistemmed tree, ultimately reaching 35 to 40 feet.

The world of magnolias is vast. There is a magnolia to fit nearly every need and niche in the garden. New breeding work continues to expand size and color choices. I am a firm believer that every garden needs a magnolia!

See More: A Gallery of Magnolias

Additional Magnolia Resources:

Fairweather Gardens

Gossler Farms Nursery

Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery

RareFind Nursery

For more information on magnolias, visit

Photo: Rob Cardillo