Magnolia sprengeri at West Dean Gardens West Sussex

Magnolia Madness

People often talk about good blossom years when the combination of prolific flower production and perfect climatic conditions at the time of flowering i.e. still, no hard frosts nor torrential rain or even worse sleet or hail, all come together to produce a display which is mind blowing in its intensity and over the top profligacy. When that happens you are witnessing one of the best bits of nature bling you could wish for and it's my impression that the last couple of weeks have been one of those magic moments for Magnolias. Everywhere I go I seem to be met with stunning displays of exquisite goblet- shaped flowers that are so elegantly unmistakeable and which exude a sophisticated charm matched by no other flowering tree or shrub. I went to a conference at the Chelsea Physic Garden the other day and wandering the streets of Chelsea on the way there every street was enlivened by some Magnolia specimen flowering it's socks off and I even spotted one street that had Magnolias as their street tree, only in the "Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea"!

A bit closer to home our very own Magnolia sprengeri "Diva" planted on the southern perimeter of the Pergola has been in full song for two weeks now! Standing about 25 feet high it is an amazing sight covered in huge pure pink flowers. Sadly most years they either get turned to brown mush by a hard frost or blown to pieces by high winds but not this year.

Being located on the dip slope of the South Downs means that our soil is resolutely alkaline, very free draining, prone to drought in a dry summer and consumes humus building compost like a builder with a fry up, hardly ideal for most magnolias. The general wisdom is that most species prefer a fairly heavy, neutral to acid, humus rich loam and with a rainfall of 30 inches plus per annum however there are a few that will thrive in our soil given generous doses of humus rich mulch and our average annual rainfall of 41 inches per annum. These include:, grandiflora, kobus, sinensis, highdownensis and delavayi. Interestingly you may have noticed that Magnolia "Diva" is not one of these so take anything I say with a pinch of salt, as I often say to trainees amenity horticulture is not an exact science!

Like Magnolia "Diva" Magnolia wilsonii will form a small tree of about 25 feet high and with a clear stem so they both make spectacular trees for the smallish garden. In contrast to "Diva" who holds her flowers proudly upright M. wilsonii is more modest and has pendent, fragrant white flowers that are a joy to look up into in May and June. Magnolia grandiflora is a quite different beast with its large evergreen leaves and magnificent lemon scented, cup shaped creamy white flowers in July and August, traditionally is this most often seen in the UK grown against the wall of some stately pile but I can't really see why it should not be grown as a specimen tree assuming you have the space. Anyway as in all things it's always worth experimenting and possibly proving the experts wrong!

Jim Buckland
Gardens Manager