Gainesville Landscape Plant of the Month: Japanese Magnolia

Many small flowering trees help brighten our landscapes from late winter through the spring season. One of the more beautiful of our early spring-flowering trees is the Japanese magnolia.

The Japanese magnolia, or saucer magnolia, opens its fat, furry flower buds in February or March before the foliage emerges. Unlike the native Southern magnolia Magnolia grandiflora, it is deciduous and drops its leaves in winter. The flowers blooming on leafless branches are particularly noticeable.

The flowers are large and showy and come in a variety of colors, such as white, lavender-pink, rose-purple, dark reddish purple and light yellow. The brightest color is on the outside of the petals, while the inner surface tends to be creamy white. The flowers range in size from about 4 to 6 inches across, sometimes larger. The Japanese magnolias generally grow to be about 15 to 25 feet tall with a spread of 10 to 15 feet.

When the flowers are young, the petals are held fairly upright, giving the flowers a distinctively tulip-like appearance. As the flowers age, the petals tend to open more and lay down, creating a more saucer-shaped flower. The flowers have a spicy to musky fragrance.

The Latin name for the Japanese magnolia is Magnolia x soulangiana. The “x” in the middle of the name indicates that this is a hybrid rather than a true species. The Japanese magnolias we grow in our landscapes are the result of a cross between two species, Magnolia liliiflora (lily magnolia) and Magnolia denudata (white saucer or Yulan magnolia).

Now is a great time to plant Japanese magnolias if you would like to add one to your landscape. The weather is still cool and the hot weather of summer is still months away. That means it is possible to select a blooming tree at the nursery. This is important because a number of varieties are available with different flower colors and shapes.