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Magnolia trees: how to plant for success

magnolia flower blossom in spring
Choosing a magnolia tree for your gardenM.Pellinni - Getty Images

A magnolia tree in full bloom is one of the joys of the spring season, whether it's a mature tree festooned with large cup-shaped flowers or a compact shrub smothered in starry blossom.

At a time when the rest of the garden is stirring into life with emerging spring flowers, bulbs and perennials, the magnolia is putting on a delightful display in colours that range from purest white through to creams and yellows, and to every shade of pink, rich reds and purples.

Similarly with cherry blossom trees, you'll find pictures of magnolia trees flooding Instagram, with either close ups of the beautiful coloured petals or wide-angled shots magically capturing a tree framing the entrance of a house. Britain's tallest magnolia tree in Lilliput, Poole, which was 60ft tall and believed to have been planted more than 50 years ago, became somewhat of a local attraction due to its magnificent pink flowers, but was recently felled over health and safety fears.


Magnolias are actually among our most ancient plants, with fossil records dating back a hundred million years. Because magnolia trees predate the arrival of bees and other flying insects, they're pollinated by beetles and are generally untroubled by pests – although it's said they were once grazed by dinosaurs!

pink magnolia tree
Andrea Kamal - Getty Images

Deciduous magnolia trees (and the best type for small gardens)

The majority of spring-flowering magnolias are deciduous. Most frequently planted are the spreading Soulangeanas and the bushy Stellata varieties. Soulangeana comes in many different colours and grows well in most urban environments and soil types, but it can outgrow smaller spaces.

If you have a small garden, the more petite and delicate Japanese Magnolia stellata is ideal, and it can also be grown in containers. It produces showy white flowers in spring that resemble a star and it's also slightly fragrant.

If you want something a little different, then Pinkie is medium-sized with rosy pink flowers, while Margaret Helen is a large upright shrub with deep rose-pink flowers.

Evergreen magnolia trees

There are also now a number of spring-flowering evergreens that provide more cheery colour throughout the year, and are particularly good for wall training. The Fairy range is one example, and these are perfect for growing in pots. In really cold winters, they may shed their leaves.

How to be successful with magnolias

magnolia tree
Getty Images

• Take your time when choosing your magnolia – these trees can live for a hundred years, so you want to be sure that the one you pick is the right size and colour. Buying from specialist growers will ensure the best quality and widest choice.

• Most magnolia trees will flower prolifically when placed in a sunny position, but be prepared for late frosts that can turn flowers brown overnight.

• Magnolias are shallow-rooted and will grow well in small beds and close to houses where their roots won't damage foundations, but avoid planting them where the ground is regularly cultivated, as their fleshy roots don't like to be disturbed.

• Magnolias can be planted throughout spring but autumn is a particularly good time while the soil temperature is high.

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