What southern garden is complete without the majestic, fragrant magnolia tree? If you’ve long admired the beauty of magnolias, you’ll be happy to learn that they’re quite easy to grow. And with over 80 species native to North America and Asia, there’s sure to be one that’s right for your yard.
With their glorious flowers and dramatic foliage, magnolias are a garden favorite. Magnolias:
- Require very little care.
- Are resistant to many diseases and pests.
- Tolerate harsh Southern summers.
- Provide year-round beauty.
- Seeds and foliage are favorites of migrating birds.
As you dream about magnolias in your yard, keep in mind that there are many different species and varieties to choose from. They range in size from 20’ to 80’ tall, with both evergreen and deciduous species. A few favorites include:
The familiar, towering Southern magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) is the state flower of Louisiana and Mississippi. It reaches up to 80’ tall, covers 40’ in width, and grows an impressive 1-2 feet per year. Southern magnolias are known for their dramatic branches and carefree pyramidal shape. Large blooms in late spring give way to cone-shaped, fuzzy fruits. In addition Southern magnolias:
- Are evergreen trees, retaining their leaves year-round.
- Start blooming around April and set fruits and seeds in late summer and early fall.
- Are considered messy trees since the large leaves drop throughout the year. For best results, don’t try to garden underneath magnolias – just let the tree branches grow all the way to the ground to hide the natural litter.
- Cultivars have been developed to fit a variety of landscapes, including the cold-hardy ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ and the smaller (20’ tall) ‘Little Gem.’
Other Popular Magnolias
- Saucer Magnolia: (Magnolia x soulangiana) Saucer magnolias are known for their early pink-tinged blossoms in March and April. Unlike Southern magnolias, the tree is deciduous, and the blooms are striking against the bare branches. This hybrid grows about 25’ tall and wide.
- Star Magnolia: (Magnolia stellata) This medium-sized tree blooms in very early spring with starlike, multi-petaled blossoms. Like saucer magnolias, these are deciduous plants that bloom on bare branches. Star magnolias are very slow-growing.
- Sweetbay Magnolia: (Magnolia virginiana) Sweetbays can be deciduous or evergreen depending on climate. They grow up to 50’ tall and have smaller, lemon-scented flowers in early summer. If you’re would like a large magnolia with upright branches to shade a patio, sweetbay is your best choice.
Magnolia Growing Conditions
Although different species of magnolia can tolerate slightly different conditions, in general they will do best with:
- Soil: Slightly acidic, moist, loose, well-draining soil. To mimic magnolia’s natural conditions, amend heavy soil with peat moss and compost.
- Hardiness: Grow best in Zones 7-10, depending on variety, with a few cultivars hardy to zone 5.
- Light: Full sun to partial shade. Moist, peaty soil can help magnolias tolerate full sun. If you’re pushing the limits of cold tolerance, avoid planting magnolias in southern exposure since the leaves can be damaged by winter sun and flowers may open prematurely.
- Water: Magnolias benefit from irrigation the first few years, then they are tolerant of moderate drought.
- Space: Magnolias need room to grow to their full mature size and width. While looking small when first planted, over time they’ll grow to fill up the space.
- Flowers: Some varieties of magnolia don’t bloom until 15 years old, so be sure to choose one that’s fits your needs and expectations. Grafted plants (rather than seed-grown) bloom sooner.
Magnolia Planting Tips
- Timing: Plant container-grown and balled-and-burlapped magnolias in fall or spring. Plant field-grown or transplanted magnolias in early spring. Avoid fall planting if you’re pushing the limits of cold tolerance.
- Spread Roots: When planting, be sure to cut any roots that are circling the root ball. Magnolias have a tendency to girdle (or become rootbound) if the roots aren’t spread out.
- Water: Give your new magnolia one inch of water per week.
- Fertilizer: Don’t fertilize your newly planted magnolia until next growing season. Then for the next three years or so, feed your magnolia with a balanced organic fertilizer every other month between March and September, cutting back to once or twice per season after that.
- Support: Use stakes and lines to stabilize your new magnolia since it will be top-heavy.
Magnolia Growing Tips
- Problems: Magnolias are generally trouble-free, and in most cases, minor problems – such as scale or leaf spots – can be left untreated.
- Pruning: If you want to prune or shape your magnolia, do it while the tree is very young since large branches don’t heal very well from pruning.
- Bark Damage: Magnolias are susceptible to bark damage and breakage, so avoid hitting them with the string trimmer or lawn mower.
- Propagating: You can propagate magnolias by collecting the seeds, or take semi-hardwood cuttings in late summer. Cuttings can take up to a year to root.
- Transplanting: Magnolias have an enormous, rope-like root system. They don’t usually tolerate transplanting once the trunk is 4” or larger in diameter.
- Magnolia (Clemson University, info and photos of types and varieties)
- Magnolia Society International
- Growing the Aristocratic, Southern Magnolia (thewisegardener.com)