Learn Patience from a Saucer Magnolia

saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)

saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)

Could patience be a vanishing virtue? Could expectation soon be a relic, replaced by the demand for instant gratification?
When evaluating a plant for placement in the garden, the length of time it blooms is increasingly considered to be of great importance. People are drawn to bougainvillea, trailing lantana and impatiens because of their capacity to stay colorful throughout the year.
Yet, in the end, love cannot exist without expectation, and ultimately, it seems, the plants of which we grow most fond are those that bloom but briefly each year.
Such thoughts take hold these winter days when viewing the suddenly spectacular saucer magnolia. Magnolia x Soulangiana. If you are not familiar with this medium-size tree, you could easily miss it 10 or 11 months of the year. When not in flower, it is barely noticeable, and when noticeable it appears to have been planted by mistake, since its leaves are generally burnt around the margins. Although demanding full sun to flower to its maximum potential, its foliage is invariably scorched.
The saucer magnolia comes completely into bloom while its branches are bare of leaves. Its flowers are various shades of pink, mauve or purple, depending on the variety of saucer magnolia on display. There are, in all, more than a dozen cultivated varieties of this species. All of them are well-shaped trees with pale bark that complements and highlights their bright flowers.
This species is a hybrid, indicated by the “x” between its genus and species names. Although both parents are from China, their seeds were brought to Europe and hybridized by Frenchmen. In fact, the genus Magnolia is named for the French botanist Pierre de Magnol, while the soulangiana species name is meant to honor Etienne Soulange, the Parisian hybridizer of this tree.
When the leaves of the saucer magnolia first appear, you are happily surprised by their felt-like appearance and unique chartreuse color (which is a sort of chartreuse green) Almost immediately, though, they are burnt along the edges. You sigh at this imperfection and look on ruefully as the foliage becomes increasingly sere with each advancing month of spring, summer and fall. Eventually you realize that the saucer magnolia is simply hiding its beauty and its gifts throughout the year, humbly waiting to reveal itself, at the appropriate winter moment, in all its glory.
The mainstay of the magnolias here in the Sun Belt is the southern magnolia or bull bay, Magnolia grandiflora. This tree is native to the Southeast and contributes mightily to the character of New Orleans, where it has been planted abundantly in parks and along streets. The southern magnolia is an evergreen, and its leaves are deep, leathery green on top and brown below; these leaves are quite strong and resist decomposition in the compost pile. The flowers of the southern magnolia are white, up to 10 inches across, and powerfully fragrant when they bloom in summer and fall.
Although durable when mature, magnolias can be slow to establish in the garden, often taking five or six years to show significant growth. They do not like competition from ground covers or underplanted shrubs, so give them plenty of room on all sides. A young magnolia will struggle if grass is planted up to its trunk. Make sure you leave the ground bare around the trunk. A watering basin should be a minimum of 4 feet in diameter. In truth, all trees would benefit from such a bare, circular area around the trunk. Put mulch or compost in the circle, but do not plant flowers or ground covers in it. Back East, such mulched “tree circles” are the norm. Sooner or later, we are certain to follow suit, to the benefit of our trees’ health.
Tip of the week: The cold winter we have experienced has forced Bermuda and Kikuyu lawns into complete dormancy. Lawns can be overseeded with annual winter ryegrass to create a green carpet that will last until the heat returns in April or May. Winter rye will die just as the tropical Bermuda and Kikuyu begin coming to life again.

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