Sunday, September 12, 2010


This has been a remarkable season for deciduous magnolias – the best I can remember in years. We have gone through a sustained period without any strong frosts and that has meant that the buds, so often cleaned out by the cold weather, have been able to mature into full blooms, and have been spectacular.

Among those to look their best this year have been the various forms of Magnolia campbellii, with their stunning pink flowers, and the amazing white M. denudata ‘Alba’. There are not too many of these trees in our inland location, partly I guess because the flowers are so frost tender that it can be a heartbreaking occupation growing these beauties. They are also very reluctant to flower early in their lives – we always used to tell people it could take up to 15 years before they would settle into flowering.

If you want to play it safe there are always the very hardy old forms of M. x soulangeana, which are reliably hardy although they are perhaps not as entrancing as modern hybrids, tending to be thinner, tulip-shaped, and often rosy purple flowered. These are the giant magnolias that grace most suburbs in established New Zealand towns. We don’t have any in our garden, but in our neighbourhood there are trees nearly 20 metres high, and they are covered with flowers at this time of the year.

As they grow they take a very pronounced rounded form, which looks slightly eerie over winter (some kids call them witches trees!) but come the spring, when covered with their multitude of two-toned flowers, they are just amazing.

The newer hybrids are a great advance, and over the past fifty years or so, New Zealand has led the world in producing M. campbellii derived hybrids in an amazing range of colours, with increased hardiness and more precocious flowering, as well as reduced size.

The initiator of this progress was Felix Jury, one of the well-known plant breeding family from Taranaki. He had ordered a plant of the M. campbellii form called ‘Lanarth’ from England, but when it first flowered it was immediately obvious that it had been sent in error and was not true to type, but was nonetheless very attractive so he released it, calling it ‘Mark Jury’ after his son.

But things did not stop there. He used this as a parent, crossing it to more compact forms, and developed a wonderful collection of hybrids, including the enormously flowered pink form, ‘Atlas’, the lovely two-toned ‘Athene’, the delectable pink ‘Serene’, two stunning white forms, ‘Lotus’ and ‘Milky Away’, and the remarkable creamy pink ‘Iolanthe’, with its long lasting flowers.

‘Iolanthe’ flowers young, with giant saucer shaped creamy pink flowers that are borne along the branch, not just at the tip as is the common way, meaning the flowering season lasts longer than most other varieties.


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