Star of the garden

The magnolia's stunning flower often bursts out before the leaves'picture: margaret overend

The magnolia's stunning flower often bursts out before the leaves'picture: margaret overend

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So far, so good. This year has been a pretty good one for one of the stars of the garden – the magnolia.

Everyone loves a magnolia but the vast majority of gardeners would probably think twice about growing one because of their reputation for being a tad on the difficult side.

Those superb flowers, many bursting out before the leaves, are guaranteed to bring a little warmth to the UK, which is far removed from their homeland of the south-eastern United States where they enjoy a climate only dreamed of this side of the Atlantic. Balmy evenings are few and far between in England; besides, some magnolias – particularly M soulangiana – are at their best in late March and April.

The colours of the great waxy blooms range from pure white (Alba superba) to rosy red (rubra).

But M soulangiana has one big drawback – and that’s its size. It may start off small, but given the right conditions and it will spread upwards and outwards until it’s no longer guaranteed to be flavour of the month in an average-sized garden.

It’s far better to plump for M stellata, which bears fragrant star-shaped flowers in April and which has the decency to grow to perhaps only six foot in height and not much more in width.

But now we are in summer and almost into autumn, there is only one magnolia on the agenda – M grandiflora, which, as its name suggests, is something special.

It needs space because it can reach 20 feet in height and spread to make room for its bright green leathery leaves and fantastically fragrant creamy-white blooms.

You’ll need a big garden for a tree with such a growth record, but if you have the space and want to impress the neighbours – think Magnolia grandiflora.

If you’re not quite as forward, there’s always the Sweet Bay, aka M virginiana, which is reputed to have been the first of the American imports.

It is more self-conscious than many of its showy brethren, content to produce small cream-white flowers from June through till September. But what it lacks in size it make up for in fragrance.

All magnolias have several things in common – they like a fertile soil and a spot where the sun is likely to shine for most of the day. And they don’t like chalk around their roots (although M grandiflora seems to be able to cope)

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