April in March – Magnolias on Parade

By now, everyone who pays attention to plants in our area has been overwhelmed with early-spring-itis in their gardens. The little daffodils and hellebores bloomed way ahead of schedule. The Okame cherry trees started showing their flowers in February, for pity’s sake, and the Yoshino cherries around the Tidal Basin and elsewhere are at their peak right now. Forsythia, tulips and even some allium foliage are working it. Climate change seems here to stay.

Some of the showiest spring-flowering trees around here are the deciduous magnolias: Magnolia x soulangiana (Saucer magnolia), M. stellata (Star magnolia), and a group called the ‘Little Girl Hybrids.’ Let’s start with M. soulangiana, which in fact was the first tree I learned to identify in my “woody plants” class in design school.

Magnolia soulangiana, saucer magnolia, pink flowers, spring

Saucer magnolias have an open, multi-trunk habit. In bloom, they are breathtaking.

Saucer magnolias usually bloom here in early April. Their flowers look like tulips, at least to me; they do best planted in full sun and good drainage. My woody plants teacher recommended that we always plant them in other than south-facing sites because of the risk of warm late winter weather causing them to bud early, only to get caught by a late freeze, resulting in brown mush all over the branches where beautiful flowers should have appeared.

Magnolia soulangiana, saucer magnolia, pink flowers, spring

A mass of blooms on a pink Magnolia soulangiana.

Magnolia soulangiana

And again.

Next there are the star magnolias, which tend to be a little smaller than the saucer magnolias once fully grown. They have strap-like blooms and most varieties have white flowers. I grow ‘Royal Star’ in my garden, a white cultivar. This specimen, which I photographed last week in Northwest Washington DC, looks very much like mine.

Magnolia stellata, star magnolia, 'Royal Star'

Star magnolias stay somewhat more compact and won't grow as large as the saucer magnolias.

Then there are the’Little Girl Hybrids,’ bred at the National Arboretum to bloom even later than M. stellata, and bearing names like ‘Betty,’ ‘Ann,’ ‘Susan,’ ‘Jane’ and ‘Judy.’ Here’s a pair of ‘Betty’ magnolias that I planted in a client’s garden about ten years ago. I think the size is ideal for a smaller site.

Little Girl Magnolias, Little Girl 'Betty'

These 'Little Girl Hydbrid' magnolias are the variety 'Betty.' (Taken with my iPhone 4).

On the whole, these trees have beautiful gray bark and root systems that don’t like being messed with. If you plant them, give them time to grow but realize that you won’t be able to grow much under them but groundcovers. Still, it’s probably worth the sacrifice.

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10 Comments on “April in March – Magnolias on Parade”

  1. Karly Robin Says:

    Love the close-ups!


  2. These are absolutely beautiful …..gorgeous blog!

  3. Anne Says:

    Beautiful pictures- I especially like the second one where the blossoms look like they are being swept by the wind. The saucer magnolia is one of my favorite blooming trees!

    • Melissa Says:

      That photo is a little misleading – the branching of that particular tree had a lot of sideways-oriented branches and I think the blooms were leaning for the light. Glad you enjoyed the photos!

  4. Margaret Reed Says:

    This has been a fabulous year for magnolias in the Pittsburgh area.In a “normal” year there is usually a spell of cold weather just as they are begiining to bloom and we rarely see any magnolia in all its glory. This year they were able to show us what a difference a little warmth at the right time can do!!!

    • Melissa Says:

      Margaret, nice to hear from you! Sounds as though climate change worked in your favor where you live this year. It’s always very frustrating to keep your fingers crossed for the magnolias to bloom and then lose out to a late freeze, so I’m glad this year’s crop in Pittsburgh worked out!


  5. Do you have a board to follow on pinterest?

    • Melissa Says:

      I had one for a couple of weeks, then took it down. I find the site very problematic in terms of copyright issues, which as a photographer are important to me. You will see lots of my images from this site “pinned” to various boards there, but that’s because the code prohibiting people from copying my images for pinning doesn’t work on WordPress.com, just on WordPress.org. In any event, I appreciate your interest and thanks for asking.


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