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Modern world of magnolias

Mention the word magnolia to gardeners and a few different plants might come to mind.

Anyone who has spent time in the Southern states immediately thinks of the magnificent Magnolia grandiflora — or bull bay — the large evergreen tree with the huge, white, fragrant flowers. If you have the space to grow these large specimens, I highly recommend them for their flowering. They are tough to garden under, however. They grow too large for most modern landscapes and are now seen mostly in parks and estates.

For the rest of us, there are deciduous flowering magnolias that are spectacular large shrubs or small trees in their own right. There are two main types of deciduous magnolias, those with saucer flowers and those with star flowers. The saucer group includes M. x soulangeana, often called tulip trees because of the shape of their flowers, and M. liliiflora, the lily magnolia. There are other less-common members of this group. They are being heavily hybridized to produce new flower colors and shapes.

The star group's most prominent member is M. stellata, the star magnolia, but it includes other, lesser-known and lesser-planted varieties. All are hardy, slow-growing, early-blooming plants.

Magnolias are sometimes considered to be heirloom shrubs because of their immense popularity in older gardens. I think it would be a shame to relegate them to quaint, old-fashioned garden status, as they have many good qualities for which they should not be overlooked. In fact, they can be one of the more beautiful small-sized flowering trees if we choose to use them that way.

For any magnolia, you must choose the planting site with some care. They do not transplant well due to their large, fleshy root systems. It is especially important to plant them higher than grown. Plants balled in burlap need to be staked for the first season if they are tall. They like to live in a well-drained, slightly acid soil that receives regular garden watering in the summer. Full sun is appropriate for them and will help them flower best. Don't plan on planting under them up to their trunks. You will damage those fleshy roots. If planting in a lawn, remove a ring of grass around the plant, at least three feet wide for a small plant and larger for the bigger types, to reduce competition for food and water. Keep mulch over the roots to keep them cool. Feed young plants with compost and slow-release organic based fertilizers. Older established plants may appreciate being fed every few years if flower production slows.

Deciduous magnolias require little, if any, pruning. Best time to prune is right after bloom, only when necessary, to correct shape, to remove unwanted branches or to control wayward growth. It is usually best to remove entire branches rather than trying to shorten them, as they are often reluctant to callous over the wounds.

Most magnolias have very large open flowers that are very fragrant. The flowers are not pollinated by bees, but by beetles. Magnolia flowers do not produce nectar, but they do produce large quantities of pollen. The pollen is high in protein and the beetles use it for food. There are many different types of beetles that pollinate the various species of magnolias located in different parts of the world.

The hot item in the world of magnolias is the introduction of yellow flowering selections. Here's how the Missouri Botanical Garden describes one such cultivar: 'Butterflies' is a deciduous hybrid magnolia resulting from a cross between M. acuminata (seed parent) and M. denudata (pollen parent). It is noted for its non-fading yellow flowers, late vegetative growth, compact pyramidal form and hardiness to both heat and cold. It typically grows as an upright, pyramidal tree to 18- to 20-feet tall with a single trunk. Upright, tulip-like, yellow flowers (4 to 5 inches across) bloom in late winter to early spring. Flowers have a light lemon oil aroma.

Intrigued? You know I am. I'll be looking for that one!

Stan Mapolski, aka The Rogue Gardener, can be heard from 9-10 a.m. Saturday mornings on KMED 1440 AM and seen in periodic gardening segments for KTVL Channel 10 News. Reach him at stanmapolski@yahoo.com.