Undoubtedly one of the most stunning additions to any ornamental garden landscape, the majestic magnolia tree is as lovely as it is easy to care for. While it's almost impossible to resist the allure of the storied magnolia blossom, with its dramatic forms and intoxicating fragrance, the tree itself is a hardy and sculptural beauty. The dense, waxy magnolia foliage provides an attractive contrast to those gorgeous blooms while creating shelter for migratory birds. The fall-borne seed cones burst with vibrant red magnolia seeds that are gobbled up by those seasonal visitors.
If you've ever hesitated to have one because you've wondered how to grow magnolia trees, or whether you can even grow them at all, rest assured—you can, and with very little effort. Though most of the 200+ species prefer tropical and subtropical climates, there are cultivars adapted to nearly every growing zone. With sizes ranging from shrubs to dwarf trees to trees that are up to 100 feet tall, there is a magnolia tree that will work for almost every landscape.
Magnolia Tree Varieties
The first and most important step is, of course, figuring out just what magnolia tree varieties will suit your Zone and space needs. Some popular options are:
Southern Magnolia Tree (Magnolia grandiflora)
These are the grande dames of magnolias. They can grow up to 90 feet tall, and their creamy, perfumed blossoms can reach up to 10 inches in diameter! Suited best to Zones 7-9, grandiflora will actually do quite well in a broad range of climates and is the most prevalent type of magnolia. Even better? There are many smaller and dwarf cultivars of the grandiflora, such as the Little Gem magnolia tree, which grows to 15-20 feet tall.
Japanese Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)
Often called a saucer or tulip magnolia, soulangeana is a hybrid between the Yulan magnolia and the lily magnolia, producing goblet-shape flowers in purple, pale pink, magenta, and even white or yellow. Considered a small magnolia tree, it is deciduous and compact, growing only to about 15 feet tall (many consider it to be a shrub). Japanese magnolias are best suited for Zones 4-9. All types of this stunner will flower in the early spring before leaf buds open for a striking bloom-on-bare-branch display. One of the most popular cultivars of soulangeana is the Jane magnolia tree (Magnolia x 'Jane'), which produces lovely purplish-red flowers that open to a pale pink or white center.
Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
Native to the Southeastern United States, this hardy variety (the very first to ever be classified) is adaptable to Zones 4-10, and it's deciduous or evergreen depending on the Zone in which it's grown. In its native Southern climate, it can grow to be 50 feet tall and is evergreen. It is hardy in Northern climates but will grow as a deciduous or semi-evergreen, smaller bush-type tree. It features similar blossoms to those of its cousin the grandiflora, but they are much smaller in size, measuring around 3 inches in diameter. Its lighter-color leaves are quite fragrant.
Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata)
This deciduous late-winter bloomer produces masses of fragrant white to light pink flowers on bare branches, before foliage starts to appear in spring. It's a small magnolia tree, reaching 10-20 feet in height, but because it is a slow grower, it makes a fantastic ornamental shrub for years. Performs best in Zones 4-9.
Planting a Magnolia Tree
Planting a magnolia is a pretty straightforward process. Once you've decided on the type that will do best on your property, it's time to start digging. Select a spot in full sun (partial sun in hotter regions), away from other landscaping. Magnolias don't like to be crowded, and they don't like to be moved once established. Don't plant anything beneath them (this includes grass), as the leaves will fall and smother anything below them (but left as a mulch to decompose, the leaves will provide essential nutrients to the magnolia). Select a location with moist but well-drained, rich, neutral to slightly acidic soil, or amend to make it so. Keep in mind that deciduous magnolia varieties are best planted when dormant in early spring.
After choosing the planting location, dig a hole at least 1.5 times the width of the root ball or bundle of your specimen and slightly less deep. Remove the upper layer of soil from the tree so the very top root is exposed. You want this root to be exactly level with the ground around the planting hole. Mix plenty of organic compost into the surrounding soil. Fill the planting hole halfway up with soil, making sure the tree is straight. Fill the half-filled hole with water, let it drain, then fill fully with soil, being sure to leave that top root exposed. Cover with a few inches of mulch. Keep young trees well-watered until established, and feed with a slow-release fertilizer in spring before the flower buds fully form.
Caring for a Magnolia Tree
When established in the proper location and climate, magnolias are exceptionally carefree. Disease- and pest-resistant, they take just a little basic maintenance. What they don't do well with, however, is damage. Magnolia wounds are notoriously slow to heal. Heavily pruning or damaging of the trunk or roots can be catastrophic. This is why it is best not to underplant your tree; digging among the roots or inadvertent nicks by lawnmowers or weed trimmers can result in irreversible damage to the tree. Keep routine pruning to a minimum, and do it only after the tree has flowered; otherwise only prune damaged branches or limbs on an as-needed basis.
With just a little planning and maintenance, magnolia trees will be the absolute star of your garden for a lifetime.