Garden Life

Magnificent magnolias
Kiran Narain

Magnolia (Family Magnoliaceae) perhaps no other tree or shrub gives a large garden such distinction as a collection of magnolias. Both deciduous and evergreen, magnolias have extremely beautiful flowers and magnificent foliage. Out of the 60-odd species, more than 40 varieties of magnolia are natives of the temperate zone of the Himalayas and China. Some of the species, of course, belong to tropical and subtropical areas and due to their beauty, hybrids have also been raised.

Magnolia grandiflora, magnolia campbellii, magnolia mutabilis, magnolia soulangeana and magnolia stellata are beautiful varieties and were favourites with British gardeners in India be it in the hills or the plains of northern India. The first three are suitable for a wide range of climatic conditions. However, fewer parks and gardens have them on their list of favourites these days and a revival of interest is recommended.

Magnolia grandiflora, also known as Laurel Magnolia, is an immensely popular and hardy tree due to its fragrant large cup-shaped creamy white flowers which turn from cream to brown as they wither. A pyramidal tree, it attains a height of over 30 feet and has a decorative, thick, leathery, rich, green and shining foliage. A half open lotus-like bud, nestling among its rich green foliage was the most welcome gift for my school teacher when I was a child. It would fill the whole classroom with its lovely fragrance for a couple of days even as its brownish petals started withering and falling. Its evergreen foliage was such a relief in the bare landscape of our snow-covered garden in Srinagar.

Magnolia campbellii is a larger tree than grandiflora but becomes leafless in winters though it is as pretty as grandiflora. Rose pink, cup-shaped, scented flowers adorn the tree in spring.

Magnolia mutabilis is one of the outstanding species which, along with magnolia grandiflora, does very well in the plains of northern India and a couple of them in Pinjore Gardens bear testimony to that. This small-sized tree attains around 10 feet of height and is an evergreen with light yellow, strongly fragrant flowers all the year round.

Magnolia soulangeana is a very fine and hardy hybrid bearing fragrantly flesh pink flowers with a tinge of purple rose and forms a small-sized tree which grows in beauty from year to year. It is in bloom from April to June when the tree is completely leafless.

Magnolia stellata is also a small tree which bears white star-shaped fragrant flowers in early spring before the dull green leaves appear. It attains a height of about 10 feet.

Magnolias need well-drained loam and clay soil, rich in organic matter. If the soil is shallow and poor, capacious holes should be dug to a depth of 18 inch at least and three metres in diameter. It should be filled with fibrous loam and leaf mould.

A sunny position suits them and medium watering is recommended keeping the soil evenly moist. However, in summers, heavy watering is required but in temperate regions soil may be kept more on the dry side, especially during winters.

Magnolias are propagated by layering mostly. Sowing should be done as soon as gathering is possible as they do not retain their vitality for long after ripening and this method is best left to experts.

Winter is the best period to plant magnolias in plains as the plants get strong before the summer sets in and the chances of their mortality are lessened. In the hills, spring is the most suitable time for transplanting when leaf buds are moving, but before they actually unfold.