I went to see a million daffodils but I was too early. Filoli Gardens in Woodside has suffered from lack of rainfall like the rest of us and the daffodils know it. The treat I got instead was a massive display of Saucer Magnolias that scented the warm air with a sweet, lemony fragrance. This tree loses its leaves in winter and even in the summer, the large green leaves are not very showy. But come late winter and kaboom you see them everywhere totally covered with huge, spectacular flowers. A tree in full bloom with a carpet of petals underneath can beckon us to stay a while.
Magnolias are native to China and has been cultivated in Chinese Buddhist temple gardens since 600 AD. Saucer magnolias or magnolia soulangeana were initially bred by French horticulturist, Etienne Soulange-Bodin, in 1820 at his chateau near Paris. Crossing two types of magnolia both with impressive flowers themselves, his new tree produced in 1826 the spectacular flowers we know today. From France, the hybrid quickly entered cultivation in England and other parts of Europe and also came to the shores of North America. Over a hundred names varieties are now known.
Magnolias, once established, are easy to grow. They are naturally adapted to areas with cool, moist winter conditions like ours. If you have a lawn they make a good specimen tree and do well in very large containers. The roots are shallow and don't like to be disturbed once they are established so make sure you pick a good spot to plant them, a place in the garden where they can show off their spreading branch structure. If planted in a lawn leave a grass-free area bare under the canopy as the fleshy roots can be damaged from constant foot traffic. Most varieties grow about 20-25 ft tall and as wide. Here are some of my favorites.
Of the many cultivars that are commonly seen, I'm always drawn to Alexandrina. Large, tulip-shaped flowers are deep rosy-purple with dark veins outside and white inside. Rustica Rubra is another stunner with deep reddish-purple cup-shaped flowers. The variety we call simply Saucer magnolia is beautiful, too. Planted in a woodland or Asian style garden it's white blooms, pink on the outside, are fragrant like all of the varieties. Gamble Garden, in Palo Alto, has a beautiful Vulcan variety blooming in their woodland garden. Above the blooming hellebores, their ruby-red flowers completely covered this spreading mature specimen. At 10-12" across, the showy flowers glowed in the late afternoon sun.
Star magnolias or magnolia stellata also make a fine addition to the garden. Much smaller than its cousin this mounding shrubby plant grows only 10-15 ft tall but much wider. Often it is pruned like a small tree to show off the early profusion of striking flowers in white, pink or rose. Star magnolias are valued for their small scale in woodland gardens and are especially beautiful if you can enjoy the early flowering from inside the house.
Deciduous magnolias along with flowering plums are among the earliest showy trees to herald in the new season. Valuable for both their stunning flowers and also their sweet scent they make the late winter garden come alive.