Magnificent magnolias

A large M. campbellii in the Dunedin Botanic Garden.
A large M. campbellii in the Dunedin Botanic Garden.
Gillian Vine stops and stares at magnolias.

Magnolia Vulcan in full bloom in Gore.
Magnolia Vulcan in full bloom in Gore.
Whenever I’m out and about, I keep an eye out for interesting plants, driving friends nuts at my stop-start progress when something attracts my attention.

I was at it again in Gore a couple of weekends ago, coming to an abrupt halt by Vulcan, a lovely dark plummy-red magnolia in full bloom at the Main St-Hokonui Drive intersection. Of course, I had to take photos.

Magnolias have been good throughout much of the south this spring, as have their close relatives, michaelias.

There are more than 210 magnolia species, all from the northern hemisphere. The genus is named for a French botanist, Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), the inventor of the concept of grouping plants in families.

Most magnolias are Asian but there are six from the United States, two evergreen and six deciduous.

One of those evergreens, Magnolia grandiflora has huge, lemon-scented flowers, while a deciduous American, M. acuminata, has yellow flowers. Known by the unappealing name of cucumber tree, this species is the one from which all yellow-flowered magnolia varieties (Yellow Bird and Elizabeth, for example) have been developed. Unlike most magnolias, M. acuminata can have good autumn foliage colour.

The flowers of Vulcan are cup-shaped. Photos: Gillian Vine
The flowers of Vulcan are cup-shaped. Photos: Gillian Vine
In the middle of the 19th century, plant collectors gathered numerous Asian species.
Yellow magnolias are all descended from one North American species, M. acuminata.
Yellow magnolias are all descended from one North American species, M. acuminata.
In the Himalayas, Joseph Hooker — son of the director of London’s Kew Gardens — found M. campbellii, naming it for a Darjeeling-based doctor Archibald Campbell, who accompanied him on part of his expedition.

In the wild, white specimens of M. campbellii predominate but those seen in southern New Zealand are more often pink, with some splendid cultivars available, such as Kew’s Surprise, and New Zealand-bred Iolanthe.

Popular for smaller gardens is the star magnolia, M. stellata. A Japanese species, it was introduced into the United States in 1862 and in Britain from 1877. As it is now critically endangered in the wild, gardeners can take pride in their part in saving it from extinction.

For decades, New Zealand has been to the forefront of magnolia breeding, with Vulcan, Atlas, Blue Tulip, Serene, Diva and Star Wars some of the varieties produced in this country, notably by Felix Jury and his son Mark.

Most magnolias are hardy and can be grown in almost every New Zealand situation but spring flowers can be wrecked by high winds, late frosts or snow.

Among smaller species, the star magnolia (M. stellata) is one of the most popular with gardeners.
Among smaller species, the star magnolia (M. stellata) is one of the most popular with gardeners.
Easy to grow as long as they are kept moist but not allowed to sit in boggy ground, magnolias need little pruning, although a tidy-up after flowering is suggested. Because named varieties are grafted, it is important not to leave shoots on the rootstock (the piece below the join). Grab these unwanted shoots when young and pull off rather than cutting them. Magnolias are generally disease-free although in warm, wet conditions, leaf spot on new growth may be an issue.

One drawback of magnolias is their size, as some can reach 20m or more when fully mature. Smaller varieties, such as Little Gem, are listed by nurseries as growing to 6m but I suspect judicious pruning could be required to keep them that low.

Produced in Cornwall in the 1960s, Kew’s Surprise was a seedling of M. campbellii hybrid Charles...
Produced in Cornwall in the 1960s, Kew’s Surprise was a seedling of M. campbellii hybrid Charles Raffill.
Nonetheless, magnolias are among the south’s stars of spring and those who have space to grow the large varieties can be assured that passersby will, like me, lurch to a halt to admire and photograph them.

Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter