Eric’s Pet Plant: Star Magnolia (Magnolia Stellata)

Here in the Northeast, as you may have noticed, spring’s gentle unfolding now seems more like a violent explosion. It used to be a slow progression: forsythia and hellebores before crocus, crocus before daffodils, delicate star magnolia well ahead of the big pinks.

Now we get the whole catalog in a rush, forced by temperatures 10 and 20 degrees above (formerly) normal. Makes me crazy, among other reasons because early beauties like star magnolia can get lost in the loud shuffle. Judging by the tone of this column, our friend Eric seems to be thinking along similar lines.

There are a score or more cultivated varieties of star magnolia, differentiated mostly by bud or flower color. The straplike flower petals give the species its name; the slow growth habit and modest size make it a great plant for cottage garden or terrace.

Star Magnolia (Magnolia Stellata)

By Eric Larson

There are over two hundred species in the genus Magnolia, almost all trees or very large shrubs. Today’s species, Magnolia stellata, is one of the trees and in the Northeast, it’s often the first magnolia to bloom. This is its charm – and also its potential failure. The early bloom time means that an early spring freeze will make a brown mush of the blossoms.

There are two ways of avoiding this. One is to plant this small tree in a location where it will be slowed down in its bloom, say on the north or better east side of the house or other structure. The other method is to plant it in a very protected spot, for instance in a south-facing nook protected from cold spring winds and where frost is not likely to reach it. Frost tends to ‘drain’ downward, so on the side of a hill would be good, not in the bottom land near a creek or river.

This star magnolia is on a north facing slope, doubly protected (at least in theory) from blossom-destroying frost.

Star Magnolia is a native of Japan, introduced into the New World in the 1860’s.  The China trade that resulted from the opening of that country’s restricted markets resulted in the tastes of Europeans and Americans being changed forever as tea, silk and other products became more available to the masses.

But plant exploration and importation from the East also became a very hot pursuit, especially after the development of steam ships, which although not as fast as the famous clipper ships, did not depend on the vagaries of the winds to keep to a schedule. Also a shipboard removable greenhouse was developed to move plants around the world, through sometimes very inclement weather.

(The importation to Great Britain of plants from the far flung corners of its empire was not the first example of imperial exhibition through horticultural display: the Romans and the Aztecs, not to mention the Chinese, were also adept at collecting plants as a show of influence in far off locales. But considering the compressed time frame, 19th century plant movement was considerably more extensive.)

I mention Linnaeus fairly often but he was not the only important  plant classifier.  Another giant of the early work in botanical systematization was Pierre Magnol (1683-1715), the son of a family of generations of apothecaries in Montpellier, France.

He was trained as a medical doctor, and received an honorary title because of this, but he is most notable for his work as an early botanist. It was he who first introduced the idea of systematically grouping plants by family, using flower parts and other common features. He was immortalized forever by Charles Plumier, who in 1703, named a flowering tree from the island of Martinique after Magnol.

Plumier met his untimely death only a year later, but Linnaeus kept the genus name, having gotten it from Plumier or perhaps William Shepard, who studied under Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, a pupil of Magnol, when he was working on his systematic approach to the naming and grouping of plants.

The genus Magnolia belongs to the Magnolia family, Magnoliaceae, which has 7 genera and over 225 species.  The flower part arrangement of Magnolias, with the flower parts in spirals on a conical receptacle, instead of in rings like other angiosperms, is an indication that this class of plants is thought to be an early adaptation of evolution leading to more highly advanced plants. Magnolias are some of the oldest flowering plants.

Star Magnolias can be grown either as small trees or very large shrubs, usually no more than 20 feet tall, with a spread of twelve to fifteen feet. They are slow growing, densely oval with lots of branches from the ground up.  The flowers are white, often strongly fragrant, with strap-like petals emerging from buds that are soft and fuzzy in the extreme. In fact the winter bud is a subtle touch in the landscape that invites photography when covered with a delicate fall of snow.

The fuzzy bud case is hanging on at the base of this flower. There's a still unopened bud at upper right

There are no serious pest problems with star magnolia, and if planted in a good sunny location in a rich peaty soil (but it is very forgiving as to soil type except for swampy conditions), it will provide that very early spring bloom that tells us winter may visit, but only with gasping breath.

This lovely little star magnolia is blooming near the back entrance of Yale's Bass Center. The particle accelerator can be seen in the background

Disclaimer: The opinions and thoughts expressed within these columns are not those of Yale University, Marsh Botanical Gardens, or Leslie Land. They are personal reflections on life, plants, humankind and the daily miracles that come my way.

Magnolia on slope photo: Bill Bakaitis; magnolia branch and bud photos by Leslie Land

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  • Susan Scheid Said,

    Oh, I do agree that spring is rushing by so fast I fear I won’t catch up! All the daffodils we planted last year are already in full bloom. And it seems only a minute ago that I was enjoying the very first bird-sounds of spring, the trees still bare, the ground still mostly brown. Thanks to you and Eric for hitting “pause” to let us enjoy the Star Magnolia.

  • Anne Said,

    Right. These are truly stunning. We sell a lot of them at the nursery.

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