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Monday, June 17, 2024
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Get some spring in your garden step

In the rush to celebrate new varieties, we gardeners can overlook the value of some older types. It is partly because there has been such a rush of perceived improvements in the past few years that we have let some tried and true varieties slip out of the reckoning.

Some plants have changed almost beyond belief. My grandparents were founding members of the New Zealand Iris Society over 75 years ago. I can remember them grumbling a little bit in the 1970s about the way the shape of their favourite flower was changing. They both died many years ago, and I am sure they would be amazed to see the way modern cultivars look. This is especially so among the less well-known types of irises.

Similarly, rose growers from the 1950s would be amazed at the different varieties around today, and would be sad to see that almost none of their favourite plants would be in modern catalogues, except perhaps ‘Peace’ and ‘Iceberg’.

What brought this train of thought on for me was the wonderful sight of the multitude of mature Magnolia x soulangeana trees around town presently. These have become a little unfashionable after the release of so many other large forms with flowers in a bigger palette of colours. The influence of M. cambellii¸ has meant a range of hybrids with softer pink tones, while others have bred in the opposite direction, with deep purple forms like ‘Black Tulip’ also being popular.

I love these modern forms, especially those with M. campbelli in their blood, but they flower in the winter and in our climate can be terribly affected by frost killing the buds. It doesn’t happen every year, but it does occur often enough to be disappointing.

On the other hand, the M x soulangeana hybrids flower in early-to mid September, and usually escape the worst of the frost damage.

The oldest of the soulangeana magnolias are almost 200 years old now, the cross being originally made in France by Etienne Soulange-Bodin, hence the name. He crossed two different species, M. denudata and M. liliiflora to get his new hybrid.

Denudata is a Chinese species, sometimes called the Yulan magnolia. It forms an attractive small tree, and has masses of pure white flowers in early spring, each carrying a pleasant citrus scent. It flowers before the leaves arrive and is a good specimen plant in the home garden.

When the flowers are finished long seed pods are formed, with bright seeds. These seeds are commercially important as they are the origin of the Oil of Ulay, the once-common moisturising cream.

The other parent, M liliiflora, is smaller growing, also from China. Both species have been grown in gardens for centuries, the latter coming to the west via Japan, so it is sometimes called the Japanese magnolia, despite its origins.

I have found that M. liliiflora tends to grow as a large shrub [about three metres or so] rather than the tree-like dimensions of most other magnolias. In New Zealand, the most common form is one called ‘Nigra’, with [as you would expect] darker flowers. The flowers are erect and narrow as buds, then open out, giving the effect of a
lily, hence the botanical name.

There are other coloured forms – there’s a nice lighter purple form down the road from us. I find the colour warmer and more attractive than the dense purple of ‘Nigra’.

The flowers of the hybrid M. x soulangeana tend to be bowl-shaped, darker on the outside and pure white on the inner. There are many cultivars, with a range of deeper and lighter colours, right through to a pure white form. Among those you are likely to able to find nowadays are ‘San Jose’, an American form with purple pink flowers; ‘Rustica Rubra’, and older form with rosy pink flowers; ‘Lennei’ which has rosy flowers on a smaller growing tree, and ‘Alexandrina’, which is another with deep rosy petals on the exterior.

These plants are relatively easy to grow. They will thrive in moist, acidic, organically rich, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. As a rule they do not like conditions that are too sandy and dry, and also those that are poorly drained.

It’s not always easy in Wairarapa, but they will do best to keep away from the worst of the wind, but they will cope readily with anything other than the very worst of frosts. They do best with a steady supply of moisture throughout the year, especially in the dry summer period. This applies especially in the first year or two of growing.

Last weekend the Wairarapa Festival launched, with a programme in November. If you want to get a head start, I suggest you get your walking shoes on, get some spring in your step and just walk around the established gardens in the older parts of town. You’ll see enough Magnolia soulangeana to gladden your heart.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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