There comes a time in spring when my neighbourhood explodes with the gorgeousness that is the sight of magnolia trees in full bloom. Here in Wiltshire that moment is right now in early May, though in other years it has occurred in April. Large white and pink blooms abound, making the trees look like they have thousands of candles on their bare branches. They also take on a luminous quality around dusk, which enhances their candle-like effect.
It’s always a bit of a nail biting time when they start to flower, as late frosts can turn those waxy flowers into a sorry brown mush. That almost happened this year; luckily there were still plenty of blooms wrapped in their furry brown protective coats ready to replace the damaged ones.
I was delighted to be invited to Caerhays Castle in Cornwall in early April, awarded Garden of the Year 2016 by the Historic Houses Association. This garden holds the National Collection of magnolias, so here was my chance to see and learn more about them. We’re limited to a few species here in Wiltshire owing to our alkaline soil, so I could drink my fill of the hundreds of cultivars the garden holds.
Declaration of spring
Caerhays is one of six gardens in Corwall which monitors a Magnolia campbellii tree for signs of spring. Flowers first appeared there in early January, but it’s not until all 6 gardens can see at least 50 blooms on their trees that spring is declared. That day this year was February 10th, well ahead of both the meteorological and horticultural official first days. Charles Williams of Caerhays Castle also confirmed that this year “is a uniquely early magnolia season.”
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the garden. Would there be any flowers? Of course I needn’t have worried as there were dozens of the later or longer flowering species still in full bloom. The view towards the Estate from its entrance on the coast is quite breathtaking, with a ribbon of magnolias dressed in pink and white threaded through the grounds as far as the eye can see.
Getting up close revealed quite a few surprises. Here are trees growing to their full potential of around 50 feet or more; twice the size of those back home. The range of colours is much more diverse too, from the deepest of red/maroons, almost black through pinks to the purest of whites. The flowers are impressive too – with one from a Magnolia campbellii ‘Alba‘ seedling on display getting close to the size of my head.
I was treated to a tour of the estate with Assistant Head Gardener Michael Levett, where I learned we were treading in the steps of the plant hunters. The Williams family sponsored or subscribed to many of their expeditions around the turn of 19th century, particularly those of Ernest Wilson and Charles Forrest
The seeds they brought back were planted throughout the grounds in a leap of faith as no-one knew if they would survive in Cornish conditions. Magnolias, along with camellias and rhododendrons did indeed thrive and the Williams family have since expanded their collection and bred their own cultivars from that initial stock.
The x williamsii strain of camellias is famous, but it was the magnolias which really impressed me on the day. The National Collection of magnolias stands at some 80 species and over 500 hybrids. Many of the latter have yet to be named, and some are chance seedlings, but do look out for the pink or deep pink charms of M. ‘Caerhays Belle’, M. ‘Caerhays Surprise’, M. ‘Caerhays Splendour’ (new), M. ‘J. C. Williams’, M. ‘F. J. Williams’, and M. ‘Philip Tregunna’.
Michael’s top tips for growing magnolias and their selection
Buy a grafted plant as this will flower within 5 to 8 years (if not already flowering), as some on their own root can take 10 to 15 years.
Protect against slugs and snails in their first years.
Buy a later flowering type if you live in a frost prone area.
And Michael’s suggestions of trees for specific locations include:
Alkaline soil – Magnolia stellata (AGM)or Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ (AGM) – white or pink star-like blooms respectively
Smaller garden – M. ‘Caerhays Surprise’ (mid-pink flowers), M. ‘Genie’ (dark burgundy-red), or the
yellow magnolias – M. ‘Gold Star’ and M. ‘Daphne’
Northerly climate – try M. souleangeana and M. stellata types
Caerhays website: http://www.caerhays.co.uk/ – note the gardens usually close by mid to late June, as the main season of interest is late winter/spring/early summer. Check the website for opening times and prices.
Historic Houses Association website: http://www.hha.org.uk/ – a rich seam of garden visiting opportunities.
Michelle Chapman is a gardener, freelance writer and blogger from Wiltshire. She is the author of the award winning blog, Veg Plotting, where she writes about her small town garden, seasonal food and anything else which strikes her whilst at her allotment.