Saucer Magnolia Brightens Even the Dullest Souls

saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)

saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)

Even the dullest soul has been known to brighten at the sight of a saucer magnolia in full bloom.
The saucer magnolia (Magnolia soulangeana) is the favorite tree of Valley plant watchers. There are more than a dozen varieties of saucer magnolia, and they bloom this month in white, pink, magenta, reddish purple, purplish pink and just plain purple. Their floral display is enhanced by the background of their gray bark and by the fact that flowering takes place before any foliage appears. All you see are hundreds of glowing flowers, as if they were brightly burning lamps on an arboreal candelabrum.
The saucer magnolia is of moderate stature and in Valley gardens generally stays under 20 feet in height. The most popular variety, which is both pink and fragrant, is sometimes called tulip tree on account of its goblet-shaped blossoms. A bonus of the saucer magnolia is that it seldom, if ever, requires pruning. If you should have to cut a wandering shoot, prune it all the way back to the trunk; if you cut in the middle of a stem, it may have trouble healing from its surgery and provide entry to disease organisms.
The saucer magnolia is deciduous and completely manageable in its growth, unlike the evergreen and unruly southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). The southern magnolia was once planted throughout Sherman Oaks and Van Nuys as a street tree, and residents have been wondering why ever since. Yes, this tree produces large and perfumed white efflorescences throughout the year, but it makes you pay for them in spades.
The biggest problem with the evergreen magnolia is its surface roots. A southern magnolia in a lawn is a lawsuit waiting to happen. It is almost impossible to walk under a mature southern magnolia without tripping over its roots. Roots aside, a southern magnolia so effectively blocks out the sun that when planted in the front parkway strip between sidewalk and street, it turns the entire front yard into a shade garden.
Not that I have anything against southern magnolias. If you ever visit New Orleans, as I have, you will be awed by them. Reaching a mature height of 80 feet, and given all the room they need to develop properly, southern magnolias growing in New Orleans are like Valley oaks (Quercus lobata) growing in Chatsworth; on their native turf, no tree can compete with them for spellbinding arboreal beauty.
Magnolias of every type make wonderful container plants. The surface roots that make them a liability in lawns turn them into an asset as container specimens. A magnolia will grow contentedly in a container for years before needing to be potted to a bigger size. It is for the same reason, by the way, that palm trees, which also have mainly surface roots, make excellent container plants.
Where southern magnolias are concerned, however, you would be wisest to consider some of the smaller varieties as opposed to the plain species. There are at least half a dozen of these, such as ‘St. Mary’s’ and ‘Little Gem,’ that grow no more than 15 or 20 feet tall.

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