Magnolias. Their very name conjures up images of southern belles in hoop skirts, languidly sipping mint juleps in the shade. And yet these trees and shrubs are not as exotic as they seem. Many varieties can be grown in Canada, some even in Zone 4.
The most popular types, such as saucer and star magnolia cultivars, are justly prized for their showy, fragrant flowers that open in early spring (at about the same time as forsythia and early narcissus) before their leaves emerge. Though a late frost can nip their flowers in the bud, in a good year their blooms will last for two to three weeks before dropping. To extend the period of bloom even further, plant May-blooming magnolia varieties, such as lily magnolia (Magnolia liliiflora) or the spectacular yellow-flowered ‘Elizabeth' or ‘Yellow Bird'.
While magnolias are best loved for their dazzling, exotic, winter-blues-chasing spring flowers, they have something to offer throughout the seasons. Their large, shiny green, leathery leaves look fresh all summer and turn an attractive chestnut brown in autumn. In winter, the handsome, smooth, grey bark-similar to that of a beech tree-comes into its own, while the big, velvety flower buds are not only comely, but are good indicators of the following spring's potential blooms as well.
Large magnolias, such as the kobus variety (M. kobus, Zone 5), make good specimen or accent plants grown in a lawn, but they're equally effective at the back of a border, especially when backed by an evergreen hedge that shows off their flowers to perfection. Smaller varieties, such as the star magnolias (M. stellata cvs.), can be integrated in a mixed or shrub border. They work well with summer-flowering shrubs, including beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) and various spireas, and offer a pleasing contrast in texture and form to imposing perennials such as ornamental grasses.
Plant magnolias in full sun or dappled shade in rich, slightly acidic, moisture-retentive loam. Like most plants, they'll tolerate less-than-ideal conditions if they're sated otherwise; many magnolias grow successfully in alkaline soil with a pH of 7.5 at the Dominion Arboretum in Ottawa (Zone 5), most likely because of its deep and moisture-retentive soil. The magnolias wouldn't thrive as well if planted in a shallow, alkaline soil that rapidly dries out. However, select the site with care, as established magnolias do not transplant easily.