Wednesday 11 December 2019

Magnificnet Magnolia

Give a magnolia the best start in life and it will reward you.

Marie with the Magnolia x soulangeana plant. Photo: Ronan Lang
Marie with the Magnolia x soulangeana plant. Photo: Ronan Lang

Marie Staunton

This beautiful Magnolia x soulangeana belongs to Mary Magowan and it is one I have admired for many years, living as I did not far from her house.

Gardeners take a leap of faith when they plant a tree of any kind, but one as special as a magnolia takes a very patient gardener to see it through to its ultimate glory. Back in 1959, after moving to a house on the south side of Dublin, Mary was given a present of a gift voucher for Daisy Hill nursery in Newry where this magnolia was duly bought. Not a woman to take a risk, she took a trip to the mountains most weekends to collect acid soil to give her tree the best start in life. Volkswagen beetles have modest-sized boots, so it took a while to collect enough soil, but this is a determined lady.

A sizeable hole was dug in the knowledge that by the time the roots had moved out of it, the magnolia would be well on its way to maturity. Now, you could say that all seems a bit excessive, but the reward far outweighed the inconvenience, and Mary's pride and joy is there for all to admire nearly 55 years later.

What makes this a very special tree is the fact that it was never badly pruned, and she allowed it the space to grow to these beautiful proportions. I have seen some of these trees sandwiched against walls with the tops cut into a flat shape, which is a crying shame for such a wonderful plant. Other than a bit of formative pruning, they really don't need to be pruned at all.

Even though their preferred soil is acid, the magnolia stellata varieties do grand in a neutral to slightly alkaline soil provided it is humus-rich and moisture-retentive.

Magnolia x soulangeana is a perfect present to consider for a child's first birthday. There is also the very lovely M stellata 'Jane Platt' with gorgeous pink star-shaped flowers as a christening present idea, if that takes your fancy.

If, like Mary, you want to give your new plant a good start, dig a big enough hole so you can include lots of ericaceous compost. It needs no staking, but site it in a spot where it will receive sunshine and be sheltered from strong winds. The flowering season is short, but it packs such a punch you won't be disappointed.

If you're looking for a companion to plant around the base of your tree, consider a very tiny but perfectly formed daffodil called Narcissus bulbocodium. It likes acid soil and won't do in alkaline, so be warned. In mid-spring it produces funnel-shaped pale to deep yellow flowers. The flower looks a bit like an old-fashioned hoop petticoat, hence its common name, hoop petticoat daffodil. The delicate and ever increasing Anemone blanda form a carpet around the base of these specimen trees, drawing even more attention.

By the way, if you haven't organised your vegetable patch this year, you can still utilise a bucket or two and start sowing seed. Carrots and beetroot along with salad crops will do well enough provided they are given adequate amounts of water and a good loam-based compost with a couple of centimetres of seed compost.

Ask Marie

Email your questions to

Q I want to grow wall-flowers this year – when is the best time to sow them?

Marie answers:  Late summer is usually the best time to sow them and if you baby them along they will make a fantastic companion plant for tulips. I planted the yellow wall-flowers with Tulipa 'Appledorn' in late autumn last year and it has provided a stunning display in the last few weeks.

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