What does a star, a saucer, a cucumber, and a tulip have in common??

Tough question! Did you get the connection? Magnolia trees, of course!

My mother-in-law just returned from a short stay in Charleston and she commented that the tulip trees were in bloom along with the daffodils and jonquils. Wouldn’t it be great to have a few tulip trees in our subdivision? I had a purple one at our previous home but the shade was overwhelming and at most I got a dozen purple blooms each April 1st. So let’s discuss Tulip or Magnolia trees – early bloomers all!

The Saucer Magnolia is a great small lot tree.

Worldwide there are over 200 varieties of Magnolia – one has the largest leaf in North America – the aptly named Big Leaf Magnolia and one is a magnificent forest giant and my favorite tree – the Yellow Poplar. The Magnolia we all know and love in the south is the Southern Magnolia and I have a three year old tree in my backyard and I made a promise to “Maggy” (yes, my trees have names!) that I will find her a nice home with lots of space in the next few years. She may resist blooming until that home is found. I rescued her from a dried up pot at Rose Lawn and she has been forever grateful.

Maggie is a promising Southern Magnolia that will quickly dwarf anything in my residential lot.

Big trees aside, my interest this rainy, overcast morning is the ornamental Magnolia that produces white, pink, or purple hand sized blooms early every Spring and would be a perfect addition to any new home devoid of basic landscaping culture. I want to look closely at five candidates for your front yard…

  • Saucer magnolia ( Magnolia ×soulangiana)
  • Star magnolia ( Magnolia stellata)
  • Loebner magnolia ( Magnolia ×loebneri)
  • Sweetbay magnolia ( Magnolia virginiana)
  • Cucumber tree ( Magnolia acuminata)
Saucer Magnolia is also known as the Tulip Tree and is a hybrid – not a native tree.

Created by crossing the lily magnolia and the Yulan magnolia, the Saucer Magnolia can either be a large shrub with multiple stems or a small tree. The white blooms with pink interiors typically appear in early spring before the leaves appear. Many cultivars are available offering different flower colors, ranging to a deep purple. This is the most commonly grown magnolia in the U.S., sometimes known as tulip tree. Plant it in full sun for maximum blooms and keep the soil acidic which shouldn’t be an issue in our clay rich environment. Most magnolias have a good sized tap root so make sure to unwind it from a container grown tree before planting.

The Star Magnolia is a beautiful addition to the landscape.

The Star Magnolia tree normally reaches a height of 15 to 20 feet at maturity, with a spread of slightly less than that. The shape of its white flowers gives it both its common name and its scientific name. It blooms in March or April, making it one of the true harbingers of spring. Fuzzy, pussy-willow like buds precede the spring display of mildly fragrant flowers. Indigenous to Japan, star magnolia trees can grow in North Georgia but hotter areas to our south are not recommended. Select a site that is well-drained, has acidic soil, and is located in full sun to partial shade. Plant in a loamy soil enriched with humus not direct clay. They are attractive enough to use as specimen trees for the spring, when in bloom. As relatively small trees, they are more likely to be seen in foundation plantings or near patios than their larger counterparts. These Japanese stalwarts often blossom a bit earlier (March and April) than Saucer Magnolias. Their precociousness after a long, hard winter helps if you desperately crave Spring flowers!

Although usually classified as a tree, these Japanese magnolias will sometimes exhibit a tendency to grow as multi-stemmed shrubs (bushes).

The Star Magnolia “Jane” cultivar is handsome as a bush.

If you wish to avoid this look, prune away any suckers so as to train your specimen to assume a tree form. The ‘Jane’ cultivar makes a beautiful shrub. The plant blooms on old wood (last year’s growth), so prune it more or less immediately after blossoming to avoid losing next year’s flowers. People don’t generally prune magnolias much (although M. stellata is sometimes a bit more tolerant of pruning than other members of its genus), but you can prune away the lower growth as it emerges on an established star magnolia tree, while letting the rounded, spreading crown become dense.

Loebneri is not as well known but just as pretty.

Magnolia × loebneri, commonly called Loebner magnolia, is a deciduous hybrid magnolia (M. kobus x M. stellata). It is a small tree typically growing to 20-30’ tall with a rounded crown. It is more often grown in a multi-trunked form that as a single trunk tree. Fragrant star-like white flowers (4-6” wide) with 10-15 petals appear in early spring before the foliage (March – April in St. Louis). Flowers give way to cone-like fruits that ripen to red in late summer, releasing individual red coated seeds suspended on slender threads at maturity. Fruits are sometimes absent on this hybrid. Obovate, medium green leaves (to 5” long). A number of hybrid cultivars are now available in nurseries featuring flowers that are white, blush-pink, lilac pink or pink.

The Sweetbay could be called a miniature Southern magnolia.

The Sweetbay Magnolia has glistening dark green leaves with a silver underside that has a frosted appearance. The 2″-3″ creamy white flowers have a light lemon scent and are visible in late spring and early summer. It is very elegantly shaped and is a good choice for a specimen or patio tree. Bright scarlet-red seeded fruit ripens in late summer attracting many birds. Prefers moist, acid soil with sun to partial shade. Grows 10′-20′ high with equal spread. If you love the Southern Magnolia with its large white fragrant blossoms but don’t have the space needed for this large tree, consider the Sweetbay.

Be careful, as some cute, little Magnolias you may find in a nursery may become monsters like this Cucumber Magnolia.

I placed the Cucumber or Blue Magnolia in this list because you may see it in nursuries as a small, cute tree but is a very large tree and will rapidly dwarf your lot and house. Don’t get me wrong, the Cucumber Tree is magnificent – in the forest – not your residential lot! It is easy to make a “size mistake” with Magnolias. If you are looking for a beautiful spring bloomer, stick with the first four in this group.

I hope that helps you understand those great looking Tulip Trees. We need to plant some in our subdivision as they add color and interest all year long.

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