Will this wet, chilly and stormy winter ever end? Well, yes, and soonish. And a forerunner of that will be the beginning of the blooming season for that most magnificent of plants, the magnolia.
I enjoyed a visit to an estate in Waterford last weekend, where I saw the rumblings of what is soon to be a symphony of colour. The gardens at Mount Congreve, which are open to the public, are situated on a wonderful spot overlooking the River Suir and consist of 70 acres of woodland gardens.
The late owner, Mr Ambrose Congreve, was inspired by Mr Lionel de Rothschild's garden at Exbury in Hampshire. He developed a passion for rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias, which are planted throughout the woodlands, echoing the landscapes of China.
Spectacular plantings of magnolias can be found in the garden: the first and original planting on the terrace below the house is composed of Magnolia campbellii, Magnolia x veitchii and Magnolia sprengeri var. diva among others, all now mature and impressive trees.
This planting is best viewed from an elevated spot near The Temple, where one can look along the top of the canopy and see a feast of magnificent magnolias.
A scenic trail leads down to the river and is flanked on both sides by hundreds of magnolias. This beautiful Magnolia Walk is made up of a number of varieties, with Magnolia x soulangeana backed by the taller Magnolia campbellii and Magnolia sargentiana var. robusta. Flowering in March and April, their large pink petals on leafless stems set against a clear blue sky are a breath- taking sight. The final view is of the River Suir and beyond to Co Kilkenny.
But for those of us who don't live on grand estates, there are still many small tree/large shrub varieties that will be suitable for the average plot.
One of the most widely planted in suburbia is Magnolia x soulangeana. This is also known as the tulip magnolia, and the unfurling of its cream or pink goblet-shaped flowers is part of the predictable and joyful sequence of suburban spring life, closely followed by yellow forsythia and sugar-pink cherry blossoms.
Most magnolias prefer neutral to acidic soil but there are quite a few that will perform on alkaline soil, and the condition of the soil may be more crucial than its pH.
Before planting, enrich soil with plenty of organic matter. This will help retain moisture, which is particularly important in late summer, as the tree produces buds for the following year and drought will severely affect future flowering.
The other important consideration is where you plant. Sunshine is best, shelter if possible, and, of course, the plant is going to need adequate space for it to grow to its mature size.
Magnolia stellata is the most common choice for smaller gardens. It's more a large shrub than a tree, with beautiful pristine white flowers composed of linear strap petals, which are fragrant. It's tolerant of lime and could be accommodated in a large container. There's a really pretty pink variety called 'Rosea'.
Magnolia 'Leonard Messel' is a small to medium deciduous tree with very pretty lilac pink flowers - fragrant and quite similar in shape to Magnolia stellata. This magnolia will also tolerate alkaline soil.
Another advantage to both these magnolias is that they will start to flower quite young, unlike the bigger trees, which will take years before they set flower buds.
Magnolia 'Genie' is a relatively new cultivar and ideal for the smaller garden. It has beautiful deep red flowers towards the end of April and will mature to about 3m in height.
If you're not keen on pink, there are some wonderful yellow varieties and, as they flower a bit later than the others, their blossoms are less liable to frost damage. 'Daphne' is suitable for smaller plots.
Finally, did you know that the flowers were edible? Michael White is the expert garden curator at Mount Congreve and while we were touring the gardens, he nonchalantly plucked a magnolia flower and proceeded to munch on it, telling me it was a delicacy in some parts of the world!
This jewel of a garden has been bequeathed to the Irish State and is open to visitors.
For more information, see mountcongreve.com
Remember that magnolias do not like to be uprooted so when it comes to planting, get it right first time if possible!