Saucer Magnolia: Harbinger of Spring

saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)

saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)

In Los Angeles, spring begins earlier than in most other American cities. Spring comes as early as the beginning of February, by which time ornamental peach and almond trees are already in bloom.
Or, if you wish, you might say that spring begins to arrive in Los Angeles when the saucer magnolias (Magnolia soulangiana) are in bloom, which is happening even as I write these words. The saucer magnolias’ large pink, mauve or magenta blossoms, which open even before their unique lime-green, spoon-shaped foliage appears, are a sure sign that spring is rapidly approaching – just as those sticky blue jacaranda flowers, typically first seen in May, are an indication that the heat of the Los Angeles summer is only days away.
In any event, it is certainly not too early to begin planning the spring garden. To consider all your options before doing so, it might be wise to pick up a copy of “Theme Gardens” (Workman Publishing) by Barbara Damrosch. The second edition of this horticultural classic has just been published.
Merely by looking at the photographs and artists’ renderings found within this book, you will discover ample inspiration for creating a garden. While some of the gardens shown are simple and others more elaborate, there is a certain coziness that pervades them all. These are not so much gardens as horticultural comfort zones, neither overly elegant nor intimidating, eminently suitable for small spaces as well as larger yards.
What the author’s recommended planting designs have in common is a deep bow to what we call the English garden style. The concept of the English garden is largely based on the work of Gertrude Jekyll, a garden designer who flourished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She sought to bring nature into the garden and to replicate, roughly speaking, the experience of walking in the English countryside on a spring or summer’s afternoon.
The beds of an English garden are replete with a variety of plants that billow or snuggle up to each other, just the way you might see them growing together while strolling on a nature trail. The sum of the garden is far more important than its individual parts. You are captivated by the overall effect and are not obsessed with the details, or with the names of the particular plant species, utilized in the design.
In truth, once the theme of a garden has been decided, there is plenty of freedom in selecting the plants. Damrosch’s crescent-shaped “moon garden” is a case in point. This is a garden whose flowers are exclusively white. “In the daylight it has a feeling of coolness and refinement,” the author writes. “In the moonlight the shapes of the flowers stand out as if they themselves were lights.” The coolness provided by a white garden sounds like an appropriate antidote to the scorching summer weather we are used to here in the Valley.
The plants selected for a moon garden could include white chrysanthemum, cosmos, nicotiana, petunia, alyssum, delphinium, candytuft, star jasmine, white agapanthus, calla lily, iris, moonflower (white morning glory), and paperwhite narcissus. White roses could also be included, of course, from the ever popular “Iceberg” to the climbing Rosa alba.
Each of Damrosch’s 16 gardens has its own signature features. A Medieval Paradise Garden might include a stone bench whose seat is planted with chamomile. A Garden of Love will contain an enclosed pergola with love seat and a water lily pond. A Zen Garden could be deeply shaded to encourage the growth of moss; a bed of moss, created solely by the confluence of shade and moisture, has a spellbinding allure that cannot be duplicated by any planting scheme. A Garden of Old Roses will have intoxicating fragrances in addition to being virtually disease-free.

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