Gardening with Diarmuid Gavin: How magnolias have enchanted us for centuries
Brought back from China by the great plant hunters of the past, magnolias have enchanted us for centuries
The sun has emerged, our winter of turbulent winds and destructive floods has receded and the soil is warming nicely. Spring on this small island can be glorious and our garden plants love to celebrate with great displays of colour. Bulbs such as daffodil and crocus are in full bloom. And some trees and shrubs which sometimes fade into obscurity are showing their magnificence. None more so than one of the most beautiful spring garden plants, the magnolia.
Amongst the oldest groups of flowering plants, magnolias have long been cultivated by mankind. The stunning specimens that we have in our parks and gardens come from an ancient genus. Fossilised specimens have been dated back as far as an extraordinary 20 million years.
Magnolias are defined by their blossom - their wide-open flower shape evolved from the plant's requirement to be pollinated by beetles, because magnolias pre-date the evolution of honey bees. To avoid being eaten by the pollinators themselves, the distinctive flower centres have developed to become extremely tough. Approximately two-thirds of all known magnolia species are found in Asia, with a large portion of these within southern China. In the wild, magnolias act as indicators of the well-being of the forest in which they are found. Sadly almost half of all wild Chinese magnolias are at risk of extinction, so it has become necessary to start a programme of cataloguing numbers and restoring habitats in an effort to save them.
Most of the magnolias in your local garden centres will have been brought into the country relatively recently, but many will have been derived from historic plant excursions. The choice of magnolia for your garden will depend on the space you have available; they can grow to great sizes and will outgrow an inadequate space quicker than you think. They don't like being moved about so take your time deciding on the right variety for the right place.
The magnificence of the deciduous magnolias is most evident in spring when their bare wooden skeletons are clothed in these dramatic flower blooms. Their growth habit is generally very open with spreading branches so that the flowers are displayed to perfection. Bright fresh green foliage bursts out soon after.
There are some gardens in Ireland and the UK which have special specimens. To see one of the best collections in its full glory, take a springtime trip to Caerhays Castle Garden in Cornwall, in the south west of England. This magnificent woodland garden is the home of a historic collection of Chinese plants that can be traced back from the great plant hunters including Ernest Wilson and George Forrest, whose excursions took place from the late 1800s.
Caerhays took delivery of magnolia seeds as well as rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas and acers and a huge number of these plants can be admired at their full maturity today. More fascinating is that they have also formed the basis of many new hybrids that grace our gardens today. When you see the magnolias blooming in this Cornish forest; they represent an amazing part of plant history, but look like they have always been there. Unlike many non-native species that can look out of place, these massive magnolias settle into their new landscape beautifully.
Birr Castle in the centre of Ireland is also a magnolia spotters' destination. There's a nice connection with one of the magnolias I recommend - Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel'. Leonard Messel created famous gardens at Nymans, Sussex, England and his daughter Anne married the Earl of Rosse from Birr Castle in 1935. Together, they continued to enhance the gardens at Birr which today are formally twinned with Nymans.
My top magnolia choices:
Magnolia grandiflora is a most beautiful evergreen shrub with large shiny grooved leaves that boast a rusty sheen on their underside. Unlike most of the deciduous magnolias, it comes into flower late summer to early autumn. The wait is worthwhile, as the sight of the huge creamy white cup-shaped flowers, up to 10 inches in diameter, is breathtaking.
More recent cultivars include Magnolia grandiflora 'Ferruginea', which produces the most elegant pale cream bloom, and Magnolia grandiflora 'Heaven Scent', which has richly-scented flower petals with pink outsides and white insides.
Magnolia liliiflora 'Nigra' is a deciduous shrub with purple-to-pink goblet-shaped flowers in summer, and Magnolia x veitchii 'Peter Veitch' has pure white flowers with a soft pink that bleeds gently into the flower from its base.
For the smaller garden, Magnolia stellata with its starry white flowers is just stunning. Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel' is also a beautiful choice for the domestic garden.
While the ideal soil for magnolias is slightly acidic, many will do well on neutral and both Magnolia stellata and Leonard Messel will manage some degree of alkalinity. Maybe more important than the PH is that the soil should be moist, well-drained and doesn't dry out in summer.
Enjoy magnificent magnolias at Mount Congreve Gardens in Waterford. Open Thursday to Sunday and bank holiday Mondays. Adults €5, under-12s free. mount congreve.com