A lot of folks around the southeast piedmont love saucer magnolias. They bloom early, and the purple shades of their tulip-shaped flowers are hard to miss. I prefer the more subtle presence of Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star.’ When all the snow-white, multi-petaled flowers on this beauty open on a fifteen-foot tree, traffic stops in admiration. The fragrance is knock-your-socks-off gardenia sweet. I admire it downwind, where its potent perfume is diluted by spring breezes.
Petals are numerous, and when fully open, they fall away from the flower center, exposing its reproductive center to pollinators. The draping petals do look a bit like stars as they dance on bare branches tickled by wind. As is true of all magnolias, the petals are thicker — more substantial — than those of many flowers. Their surfaces feel like velvet to me when I stroke them gently.
Of course, planting any early-blooming magnolia variety in a southeast piedmont landscape is a bit of a gamble. Late hard freezes often hit just as Royal Star is at the height of her glory in my yard. White petals go brown overnight, then fall to the ground, blending with the forest floor.
I tried to optimize my Royal Star’s chances of maintaining its white blossoms by planting it under mature loblolly pines. The pines protect the magnolia from north winds and offer summer shade from the worst of our afternoon heat. My tree grows taller and wider every year, so I think its location suits it well.
I confess I have a real fascination for the magnolia family. We’re growing eleven different varieties now. Most of these are actually different species, but some specimens are cultivars of the same species. Every single one of them has show-stopper blossoms; even the buds and leaves of these trees merit appreciation.
Although early-blooming magnolias require careful siting to ensure a successful show of flowers, I think they are worth the trouble. With daffodil and crocus accompaniment, they escort winter out the door and welcome in spring freshness. Later-blooming magnolia varieties continue to punctuate the seasons with their striking forms and fragrances. I’ll show you what I mean as summer nears and more of my magnolia beauties strut their stuff.