Thursday, March 12, 2015

Magnolia said knock you out

Dear _______,

Magnolias seem to be one of those trees (or shrubs) that you either love or you fear. I have both kinds of relationships with them. When they're in bloom, they are magnificent: like a muted monster-truck-show kind of magnificent. Some species' blooms are akin to tea cups or cupcakes on trees. Every time I look at one, I'm thrown down a rabbit hole, straight into Alabama and expecting to meet the Mad Hatter with sprinkles. When magnolias are not in bloom, I find their foliage a bit vulgar. Most cultivars have thick and often glossy leaves like the plastic packaging of my birth control. Not to mention they always remind me of Julia Roberts and her awful 80s hair in Steel Magnolias. Since the buds of a magnolia are slightly furry, I'm irrationally afraid that the bud fur will grow out to be an unruly mass of dry red hair in desperate need of taming, and I don't have enough blood sugar to rub hair conditioner on magnolia buds. But I'm still growing one in my garden just because I can.

Unlike unruly-80s-haired Julia Roberts before plastic surgery, magnolias are generally found in the deep south and on the east coast, although many Japanese cultivars will grow in the cooler weather of the northwest. Like the pop-collared preppy that stands out in a crowd of loitering hipsters, the species grown in the northwest stands out when it blooms in early Spring while more common trees are still hung over from the previous Autumn's last hoorah. Most of the smaller, star magnolias (Magnolia stellata) around Seattle started heralding Spring a couple of weeks ago and the blooms are already fading. No matter that it's still technically Winter and climate change is all up in our planet's grill. They bloom quickly, too. One day there's large, fuzzy, gray-green buds, and the next day the pink (or yellow or white) starts peeking out. Within two days, you'll have a riot on your hands, and a week later it's over and there's petal litter everywhere like your obnoxious and childless neighbors just threw the most elaborate New Year's Eve party ever. And if you don't clean that crud up, you'll be fined by hoards of slugs. But, hey, it was one heck of a party.

Party like it's your birthday: Magnolia stellata
Since there are so many cultivars, you can choose from the obscene D-cup blooms to dainty double-As to suit your personality or your yard. I currently have a cultivar that is probably a C-cup. The blooms are mid-sized since it's a young tree at five years old. It also only has about ten blossoms which refuse to bloom simultaneously, so it's quite anticlimactic and overshadowed by my neighbor's adult magnolia. When it's ten years old and enters the fifth grade, I have high expectations of more cooperation. My neighbor has a twenty-year-old star magnolia (the dainty, double-A kind) which blooms profusely and looks more like a Disney princess movie than a bra burning party.

Magnolia stellata at Sky Nursery in Shoreline, WA 

Goblet-sized blooms on Magnolia 'black tulip' at Sky Nursery in Shoreline, WA

My neighbor's Magnolia  × loebneri 'Leonard Messel' 
My young C-cup Magnolia 

In the deep south, my cousin, Andrew, tells that me that most magnolias are of the grandiflora cultivar with white, fragrant blooms as big as a baseball mitt. Most people associate these cultivars with the gold standard of the species. I've found most of the magnolias around Seattle are pink, have no scent at all, and are rarely as big at the grandiflora. In fact, I've never seen a grandiflora in my area. I checked, too: I was out and about with a telephoto lens snapping photos of random people's magnolias from my car. I was mistaken for a private investigator, a stalker, and the police only talked to me once, but I still couldn't find a grandiflora. I'm fine with this because there are hundreds of cultivars out there (seriously, check out that rare variegated magnolia in the link called 'Fran Smith'). One or two cultivars are even hardy to zone 4. Growing a magnolia in southern Montana is now possible and either absurd or superb depending on how traditional you are. Montana isn't exactly known for its magnolias.

Magnolias enjoy rich soil and will perform poorly without it. That means digging in compost, fresh and coarse sawdust, chicken manure, or planting it over the remains of a dead cedar that you cut down in 2012 and discovered housed a family of angry raccoons. But the decomposing cedar roots will feed my magnolia for years and the raccoons took up residence in a neighbor's tree. The neighbor is a republican, so I don't feel too badly about it. Also, don't over water your magnolia or it will turn into a gremlin, stick itself in a blender, and die a horrible death. But unlike the pre-gremlin Mogwai, magnolias enjoy full sun, so site it in a sunny spot that will get at least six to eights hours of sunlight a day.

If I haven't convinced you to buy a magnolia, don't worry about it. But if I have, I recommend researching a bit more about your new or pending acquisition. I enjoyed this article by Margaret Roach, who hosts a radio show about gardening. So go forth, and plant responsibly.

Peace out,


Anonymous said...


Andrew Clark said...

Emily, Cousin Andrew from the Deep South here.

The magnolia blossoms we're familiar with often get the size of a baseball mitt, so much larger than a human hand. They are large, and very fragrant.