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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.
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.
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.