Magnolia Study Day 2023

On Saturday April 8th students and faculty from Wisley, Great Dixter and Kew gathered round a table of vases of magnolias in current bloom, selected from the WHF collection of around 250 species and cultivars from Magnolia, Michelia and Mangleitia. These students were joined by WHF Friends and Volunteers from a variety of backgrounds, from landscape architects to directors of other well-known gardens nearby. The table was set on the main lawn, ringed everywhere by magnolias up to 30-40 ft in the garden landscape, conspicuous against a dark backdrop of conifers. Twelve of these are Tree Register (TROBI) National Champions (eg Apollo, Arnold Dance, Sundew, Sweetheart, Pickard’s Snow Queen etc).

M. ‘Red Lion’, one of Oz Blumhardt’s sister seedlings to ‘Star Wars’ – a national champion at WHF

Another table provided continuous cups of tea and coffee, and someone brought two tins of chocolate crispies, essential requirements to keep the show on the road.

A few last flowers of the earlies – sargentiana var robusta, campbellii , campbellii var mollicomata and dawsoniana- were still available for the vases, plus some examples of their hybrids and forms, such as the Raffilii Group, Premier Cru, sargentiana var robusta ‘Blood Moon’, dawsoniana ‘Clarke’ and ‘Valley Splendour’. 

Vases picked that morning showing the main horticultural divsisions, with M. ‘Iolanthe’ and ‘Dawn’ in the background. The Nothogfagus (centre) coming in to leaf marks the spring timing.

Maurice arranged 8 vases divided into main horticultural subdivisions of most practical use to horticulturalists and garden designers, and containing examples of representative specimens:

  • 1 The early Asiatic trees (campbelli, dawsoniana, sargentiana var robusta – see above)
  • 2  Stellata, loebneri and denudata (see above)
  • 3   Sprengeri (Copeland Court, Lanhydrock, Claret Cup etc)
  • 4 Soulangeana and Pickards (Snow Queen, Grace McDade, Ruby, Opal etc)
  • 5 Greshams (Tina Durio, Manchu Fan, Pink Bouquet, Darrell Dean etc)
  • 6 Kiwis –  New Zealand hybrids (Iolanthe, Ruth, Kathryn, Genie etc)
  • 7 Michelia/Mangletia (only Michelia doltsopa, and Michelia yunnanensis in flower)
  • 8 Yellows (only Petit Chicon and Honey Tulip beginning to flower)
‘Honey Tulip’, open on April 8th: a truly precocious yellow of fine globular shape, the colour of solid honey

Vases of M. stellata , like the best pink form ‘Jane Platt’ and pale pink ‘Dawn’ were featured with cultivars of the tough, weather-resistant M. kobus x stellata M. x loebneri, such as the favourite fragrant Mag’s Pirouette, free flowering long-lasting ‘Merrill’ and the larger flowered ‘Donna’.

Is this Peter Smither’s ’32 tepals FV’ or Jane Platt? Are they different?

Two additional vases could be added –  the summer flowering Oyamas and the evergreen grandifloras that do not begin flowering until May and were therefore not represented; but our evergreen michelia Doltsopa, over forty feet, gave us a fresh first flower.

Michelia Doltsopa

There was plenty of discussion of subjects like growth rates, weather resistance, length of flowering time and notably the questionable value to horticulturalists of sinking Michelia and Mangleitia into Magnolia when there are morphological characters of significance to gardeners that clearly distinguish them. There was a consensus that this was unhelpful as there is useful horticultural information and history contained in a name, and the value of this is sharply reduced by placing these two genera into the generality of the wider genus of Magnolia. For example, what value is there now in calling Mangletia decidua (significantly named as the only deciduous plant in an evergreen section) Magnolia decidua, when so many other magnolias are deciduous? The power and point of the name is hollowed out…..

A Keith Rushforth collection of campbellii alba, the ‘classic’ white campbellii that really should be the type species if William Griffith (1810-45) hadn’t died prematurely and his diaries taken so long to be published. Photo: Jack Aldridge

After lunch, the group toured the arboretum where distractions like Meliodendron xylocarpum, Corylopsis and Stachyurus and large leaf rhododendrons were seen, along with more magnolias – notably a superb M. campbellii alba from the Himalaya flowering for only the second year with 8 flowers; and the final flowers on ‘Premier Cru’, a WHF seedling.

A late flower of WHF seedling ‘Premier Cru’ – a putative hybrid between sargentiania robusta ‘Blood Moon’ sorengeri ‘Claret Cup’. Early flowering and a very strong colour.

Extraordinarily delicious home-baked cake generously provided by Wisley staffer Narisa Kempster rounded off the day, with the plant of the day over tea winning most votes (4 out of 24) not a magnolia, but the meliodendrons then in early flower, especially the Hillier form and MF’s own collection, one freely flowering for the first time this year as a 11 year year-old tree, a nice pink. A forty-foot specimen Gresham Magnolia ‘Manchu Fan’ and M. loebneri ‘Mags Pirouette’ were also featured in the vote.

Text: Maurice and Clare Foster. Photographs by Owen Hayman and Clare Foster.

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