The magnolia tree is prized for its fragrant, showy flowers and glossy green foliage. It’s attractive appearance makes it easy to see why this is one of the most popular plants amongst floral and ornamental gardeners.
Prized for their large flowers, some varieties come into flower before they have produced any foliage for the year. This helps to bring early season color, as well as structure and height to a garden.
The magnolia tree is also very popular with bees, meaning it is a great way to bring pollinators into your garden. Once flowering has finished, attractive cone-like fruits decorated with brightly colored seeds emerge. These are known to attract birds to your garden.
Elegant and attractive the magnolia tree is a reliable addition to a garden of any size.
The largest varieties can have a spread of up to 40ft making them a useful shade plant. Compact or shrubby cultivars are attractive additions to borders or as an ornamental plant.
Here is everything you need to know about growing the attractive magnolia tree.
Different Varieties of Magnolia Tree
Depending on the variety, the magnolia is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9. While some varieties are deciduous others are evergreen. Depending on the cultivar the size of the plant ranges from fairly compact 15 ft shrubs to trees in excess of 80 ft.
Deciduous varieties flower in early spring, before the foliage appears. The flowers emerge from pussy-willow like buds. These buds are set the previous year and remain on the tree throughout the fall and winter.
Evergreen varieties flower profusely as spring turns to summer. The tree may flower for a second time in late summer or early fall. It is also not unusual for the plant to flower sporadically throughout the year.
Depending on the cultivar you are growing, the large tulip or star shaped flowers come in shades of yellow, white, pink and purple. Some varieties even produce attractive double blossoms. Many are sweetly fragrant.
The grandiflora cultivar is one of the most reliable and resistant cultivars to grow. It is also pleasingly problem free.
One of the most reliable cultivars is the grandiflora variety. Also known as the Southern Magnolia this is possibly the best known of all the magnolia tree varieties.
Southern Magnolia is one of a number of cultivars that are native to the United States. Growing native species is often easier than growing non-native species because they are better suited to the local climate.
The native species are:
- Ashe’s Magnolia
- Bigleaf Magnolia
- Cucumber tree
- Southern Magnolia (Grandiflora)
- Star Magnolia
- Sweetbay Magnolia
- Umbrella Magnolia
Additionally the Saucer and Loebner cultivars are both hybrids. While they are not native to the United States they are suited to growing in this climate.
When to Plant a Magnolia Tree
Plant evergreen varieties in early spring.
Deciduous varieties are best planted in the fall in the south. In the north, plant deciduous cultivars in the spring.
Whenever you plant your magnolia, it is best done when the plant is dormant. This is because there is less chance of the shallow root system becoming damaged if you plant when it is dormant.
If you purchase the plant in the summer remove the packaging and place the container in a sunny position. Keep the soil moist and plant in the fall when the plant is dormant.
Choosing the Right Location
Choose your site carefully. The magnolia tree has a wide-spread. The plants also have a shallow root system, this can be damaged when transplanting.
Evergreen varieties do best in full sun. Deciduous cultivars prefer partial shade. If you are in a region where frost may strike after the plants begin to flower, plant in a protected or sheltered position.
Plant in rich, well draining soil. These plants tolerate sandy, loamy and clay soils as long as drainage is good. Before planting work in organic matter such as leaf mold or compost. This enriches the soil as well as improving drainage.
These plants prefer soil that is slightly acidic soil. If you are unsure what type of soil you have, why not invest in a soil test kit? This is an easy way to discover the makeup of your soil, helping you to create the ideal growing conditions for your plants.
How to Plant
Water thoroughly an hour before planting.
Dig a hole that is about twice the width of the container currently holding the plant. If the soil is of a poor quality work in compost or organic matter. This improves the soil and helps the root system to develop.
Remove the plant from the container.
Gently tease out the roots, being careful not to damage them. Use a clean garden scissors to prune away any damaged or broken roots.
Position the plant in the hole and backfill. Taller varieties and saplings may require staking. This helps to support the tree as it matures, preventing it from snapping in the wind.
Planting in Containers
Smaller varieties happily grow in containers. This is a great way to add color and fragrance to a small space such as a patio.
Plant in a deep pot. The pot should also be clean and have drainage holes in the bottom. Fill the pot with soil or compost for ericaceous plants. This is ideal for acid loving plants. You can also amend neutral soil to make it more acidic. The pH should be 4.5-5.5. Water the soil about an hour before repotting.
Plant as you would in the ground.
After planting water well. Keep the plant well watered for several weeks. This helps the plant to settle in its new home.
If you choose to plant in peat free compost, be warned that it quickly loses its benefits. This means that you may need to repot your magnolia tree regularly. You will also need to repot your plant if it becomes root bound.
The easiest way to tell if your plant is outgrowing its current pot is to check the drainage holes in the bottom of the container. Roots sticking out of drainage holes is a clear indication that the plant is too big for the pot. Other signs that are easier to notice, include the soil drying out more quickly than usual or the plant not looking as healthy as it once did.
A fully grown magnolia tree can be difficult to repot. Instead replace 30 to 50% of the soil in the pot every other year. This helps to keep the soil rich and full of nutrients. Be careful as you replace the soil not to damage the plant’s shallow root system.
How to Care for a Magnolia Tree
Once planted, magnolia requires little regular care. It is also pleasingly resistant to many pests and diseases. If planted in a favorable position, and correctly cared for the plants can live for over 100 years.
When mowing your lawn try to angle the mower so that cuttings and debris do not fly towards your tree. Also try to avoid using strimmers close to your tree. Flying debris can damage the bark and wood of the plant. These wounds can provide an easy entry point for insects and disease.
Properly planting and caring for your tree helps to reduce potential problems. It also promotes flowering and helps to extend the plant’s life span.
Water young magnolias regularly, keeping the soil evenly moist until they are established. An expandable hose is an easy way to keep your garden hydrated.
Once established, the majority of varieties can tolerate heat and moderate periods of drought. This resilience makes the magnolia tree a good choice for gardeners in harsh or difficult climates.
Mature plants require water only during the spring and summer and if the soil is dry. If the temperature is consistently over 68 ℉ you may need to water deeply once a week.
A magnolia tree in a pot requires more regular watering than those planted in the ground. Water when the top inch of soil feels medium-dry to dry. For a more accurate measurement, try a soil moisture meter such as the Gouven Soil Moisture Gauge.
As long as the tree is growing and flowering there is no need to fertilize. Magnolias that are failing to flourish, or those with yellow foliage, may be struggling because of the soil. Test your soil for the nutrients present and amend any deficiencies.
If you do decide to apply a fertilizer, a slow release fertilizer is best added in the spring after you have planted the tree. You can also apply the fertilizer as the plant starts to produce foliage and the flower buds begin to swell.
Plants in containers may require feeding. A liquid ericaceous fertilizer is ideal. A fertilizer made of coffee grounds can also be applied.
Mulching the base of the plant with organic matter, such as compost, helps to keep the plant healthy and the soil rich in nutrients. The best time to apply mulch is in late spring, between April and May or in the fall.
Before mulching, weed the area around the tree and remove any debris. Water the soil if it is dry. Apply a thin layer of mulch or rich potting soil and hoe in well.
The magnolia tree requires little regular pruning.
You do need to remove damaged branches as well as those crossing or becoming entangled. This helps to improve air circulation, keeping plants healthy. It also improves the aesthetic appeal of the plants.
Prune when flowering has finished. Depending on the variety and the conditions you are growing in this will either be in later spring or early summer.
Don’t prune too late into the summer. Pruning too late in the year can lead to fewer blooms to emerge the following spring.
Try to prune as little as possible. The magnolia tree is slow to heal. Open wounds can create an entry point for disease or pests.
Pruning at the wrong time can deter plants from setting buds. Flower buds can also be damaged by late spring frosts.
Deciduous varieties lose their foliage in winter and become dormant. This is natural and nothing to worry about. The magnolia tree is a hardy plant.
Despite being hardy, the magnolia tree is early to flower. This means that the flowers can be damaged by late frosts. Planting in sheltered and sunny locations helps to protect plants. You can also protect young plants by covering with a horticultural fleece such as the Easy Gardener Plant Protection Blanket.
How to Propagate
Some plants are licenced. This means that you are only allowed to propagate them with the licence holders permission.
Propagating From Seed
You can propagate a magnolia tree from seed. The seed pods emerge in the fall as exotic looking cones which gradually open to reveal red berries. These are a magnet for squirrels, birds and other wildlife. Inside each berry is a seed.
Harvest berries when they are fresh. Once the seed dries out it is not viable.
Hybrid varieties don’t produce true seeds. This means that young plants won’t be exactly the same as their parents. It can be 10 to 15 years, once the new tree flowers, before you find out what it looks like.
When berries turn bright red it is a sign that they are ripe. To harvest carefully pick fresh ripe berries.
The tree’s berry filled cones container the seed. They are also a popular source of food for many different types of wildlife.
Remove the seed from the fleshy berry and soak overnight in lukewarm water. This helps to soften the shell. The next day rub the seed with a hardware cloth to remove the seeds outer coating.
Before germination is possible the seeds must go through stratification. This is the process of artificially creating a cool, dormant period. To do this, place the seed in a container filled with moist sand. Place in a refrigerator for 3 months, or until you are ready to plant.
When you remove the seed it registers the warmer temperature and assumes that winter has passed so it wakes up, ready to grow.
Plant the seeds in the spring either in the ground or in a clean pot. Cover with a thin layer, about a quarter of an inch thick of soil and keep moist until a seedling emerges. Mulch the soil to help it retain moisture. For the first year, protect the seedling from direct sunlight.
Propagation via Cuttings
Cuttings can also be taken but these are prone to failure. Starting multiple cuttings increases the chances of one succeeding.
Take semi hardwood cuttings in the summer after the new season growth has begun to mature. The cutting should be 4 to 6 inches long with at least one set of mature leaves on the stem and some softer new leaves at the tip. The tip should be slightly flexible. The stem should be about a quarter of an inch thick at its base.
Only take cuttings from healthy stems. Avoid any stems that seem stressed, diseased or damaged. Also avoid stems with a solid green bark its entire length. These are too mature to root.
Take cuttings on a cool, damp morning when the stems are fully hydrated. Make a clean cut with pruning shears.
If you can’t pot immediately, wrap the cuttings in moist newspaper and place inside an ice chest. The foliage is often large and can quickly lose moisture. It is vital that you keep the cuttings hydrated until you can plant.
Remove the foliage from the bottom half of the cutting. Cut the remaining leaves in half, to limit moisture loss.
Wound the cuttings with a sharp blade, scraping off half an inch of bark to expose the green inner layer. This is known as the cambium. Cover with rooting hormone.
Plant each cutting in an individual pot filled with sterile, fast draining potting medium. A mixture that is half peat moss and half sand is ideal. Firm the soil around the stem.
Place the pots in a lightly shaded area sheltered. Don’t place in a windy position or where the midday sun can dry out the plant. If you are rooting your cuttings indoors, place near a lightly shaded east facing window. The temperature should remain above 75 ℉.
Keep the soil moist by carefully drizzling water and allowing it to soak into the soil. Water until it emerges from drainage holes in the bottom of the container. During warm weather mist the cuttings twice a day. After misting, gently shake the pot to remove excess liquid.
Southern magnolias can take 9 weeks to root. Other varieties may be quicker, for example the saucer cultivar takes 4 to 8 weeks. How long rooting takes often depends on the surrounding conditions. To check for roots gently pull the plant from the container if you feel resistance roots are forming.
Once roots have formed, transplant the cuttings into 1 gallon nursery pots filled with the same soil profile. Return to the same position and grow on for at least one season, watering when the soil is dry. The trees can be transplanted at the end of this season.
Reliable and attractive these plants are a great way to add color, fragrance, height and structure to your garden. They will also help to fill your outdoor space with lots of wildlife.
Native to East Asia, the Himalayas and parts of the Americas, the magnolia tree is an attractive addition to any garden. Once planted they are also pleasingly easy to care for. This easy going nature has helped to make the magnolia tree an attractive and reliable addition to any garden.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.