Waiting throughout the long months of cold in their fuzzy, protective coverings, called “perules,” the multitude of magnolia flower buds go beyond winter interest, shimmering in the slant of the season’s light, to convey a sense of winter empathy. When I spot a glimmer of pink or white pushing through a splitting perule, I know that the first real breath of spring is at hand. The “precocious” blooming magnolias, those that flower prior to the trees leafing out, exude a fragrant freshness into the air, cheering the senses and brightening the weary winter landscape.
First to bloom, in early April, are the group of Magnolia stellata and a stellata hybrid M. x lobneri ‘Leonard Messel’ on the entrance lawn, along with the sweetly scented M. x lobneri ‘Merrill’ by the entrance. The star magnolias are hardy, but these early bloomers all risk frost damage to their fragrant clouds of blossoms. South along the driveway, the M. denudata peaks about three weeks later. With its ivory blossoms lighting up the entire tree, one understands why Buddhists in China have planted it outside their temples for ages. Some branches bend graciously toward the ground, presenting chalice-shaped blooms for imbibing their heavenly fragrance.
At the entrance to the Herbert & Hyonja Abrons Woodland are several magnolias, including Magnolia x ‘Elizabeth’ bearing creamy yellow, sweetly scented flowers. A cross between M. acuminata and M. denudata, this cultivar was developed by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and was the big breakthrough in breeding yellow-flowered magnolias. A special new yellow cultivar, bred by BBG and honoring a former president there, Magnolia x ‘Judy Zuk,’ has recently been planted by the walkway entry of Wave Hill.
Another category of magnolias, those that flower in the full foliage of late spring or summer, includes natives both deciduous and evergreen. In front of Glyndor House, two sweet bays (M. virginiana) with small lemon-scented flowers grow beside the tall southern magnolia, aptly named Magnolia grandiflora. English poet and writer Vita Sackville-West described its large flowers as “great white pigeons settling among the dark leaves.”
A special late bloomer, Magnolia sieboldii, is given pride of place by the brick entry path. With its delicate, pendulous and redolent flowers, this small candelabra-shaped tree merits a closer look. The fragrant June blooms of M. macrophylla are quite the opposite in size with flowers up to a foot wide. But fair warning about the neighboring M. tripetala: it is the stinker in the group. From winter buds to summer blooms, the genus Magnolia has striking and subtle gifts to offer the spring pageant.
Marilyn Young is Horticultural Assistant at Wave Hill.