Wednesday 21 March 2018

It's showtime for magnolias

Magnolias are coming into flower and one of the most popular is the star magnolia
Magnolias are coming into flower and one of the most popular is the star magnolia

Gerry Daly

The star magnolia gets its name from the starry shape of the flowers. These are carried in a plentiful display in late March and April. After a mild year they arrive a bit earlier and seem to be on time this year. While most other kinds of magnolias have six petals, the star magnolia has about 15 petals per flower. These are narrower than the bigger species but the large number gives the star magnolia a jaunty liveliness.

Most kinds of magnolia are relatively large growers, making a small tree eventually and taking up quite a bit of space. But the star magnolia is a small grower that makes about two metres tall and about the same in width after 20 years. Even small gardens can easily accommodate a small tree of this size. It is well worth its place because it covers itself with its starry white flowers for about three weeks in spring and this comes at a time when many trees and shrubs are just breaking bud.

One of the world's most ancient flowering plants, magnolia seems to have out-survived its pests and diseases because it largely remains healthy. The most severe pest is snails on young small trees. The snails climb the stem at night and feed on the leaves, disappearing to their hiding place before first light. The shiny slime trails are a tell-tale clue and a few slug pellets close to the stem at ground level will give control.

The star magnolia's botanical name is Magnolia stellata, the stellata bit meaning 'star'. The little tree is such a joy in spring that it deserves to be planted in a spot where it stands out and its beauty can be seen and appreciated. It could be located near a window or on a bend in a border. Move it around in its pot, trying it in different locations in the garden, and this is a particularly good way to place it if it is in flower at the time.

Most star magnolia plants are sold in flower and flowering time is also a good time to plant because the plant makes a surge of root growth as soon as flowering is finished. While it is often advised to give it acid soil, the star magnolia does perfectly well in limy soil too that is free-draining. It will be perfectly happy if given some garden compost dug in at planting and a mulch of decayed leaves in spring every couple of years to retain moisture in summer.

Pruning is rarely necessary, except perhaps to remove a straying shoot. In autumn, its leaves make good yellow foliage colour and, in winter, it carries lots of silvery furry buds from which the flowers open in spring.

Is my eucalyptus tree in trouble?

Q: I moved a small eucalyptus tree that was planted in our garden back in December. I've noticed that the top leaves are looking dead and curled up. I'm wondering if it was some frost that did it back in February. Do you think this is the case and will the tree continue to grow? Is there anything I can do for now?

Andrew.S by email

A: Eucalyptus is a notoriously bad mover as the roots do not re-establish well. Also it was a harsh time of year. But still, allow it to take its chances, although they are slim.

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