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A Magnolia Love Affair

To celebrate the first ivory goblet on our magnolia tree, today’s story delves into a raunchy love affair between two Himalayan magnolias and the love-child that ensued, that took the world by storm.



Members of the magnolia flower. Photo - Luisa Brimble/Linda Ross


Late winter clicks around and I quickly plump up my cushions and stoke up the wood fire. I love my cosy magnolia viewing spot, a north facing picture window. Snuggled here I can watch the furry grey buds swell on lifeless lichen encrusted branches. As I watch it’s hard to believe the magical transformation into flower, but religiously it does and I’m floored by ivory wings that glow in the moonlight.



Linda and her 'steal' magnolia. Photo - Luisa Brimble

Deciduous magnolias produce their blooms on naked stems in late winter to whisper all is not lost and spring isn’t far away. When adventurous plant hunters of the 18th century originally found these huge-flowering trees in the Himalayas and throughout central China, they knew they had discovered something special. No tree discovered to date bore such flamboyant flowers on bare branches – naked! Chinese magnolias caused an uproar when they arrived in the United Kingdom in 1789. They were considered to be too ‘sexy’ and not at all suitable for the conservative English gardens of the time. These days there are few gardens in the UK without one, and Australian and New Zealand gardeners have fallen in love with their spell and the countless new hybrids now available (



Magnolia denudata - The Yulan Magnolia. Photo - Luisa Brimble/Linda Ross


Probably the oldest species, and the first to flower is the ‘big daddy’, which the Chinese awesomely call ‘Welcoming spring flower’, Magnolia denudata. We call him, the Yulan Magnolia. Buddhist monks planted this tree in temples throughout China as early as 650AD and its flowers a symbol of purity. It grows in woodland areas at 1200m elevation in the eastern provinces of China. Lily shaped flowers open from furry grey buds along twisted silvery grey branches, the effect from our tree is enchanting.


Yulan Magnolia (Magnolia denudata) Photo - Luisa Brimble

From central China, introducing the demure little Black Lily Magnolia (M. liliiflora ‘Nigra’), as mother magnolia. Her flowers are petite, narrow, upright and a deep shade of Cabernet. She’s the reason for the outer colouring on the world’s most popular magnolias, soulangiana.



Black Lily Magnolia (M. liliiflora 'Nigra'). Photo - Luisa Brimble

These two magnolias were crossed 200 years ago, in Fromont, France. The result is the most popular magnolia in cultivation – what we sometimes call the ‘Saucer’ or ‘Tulip’ Magnolia, M. soulangiana. She’s named after the man that bred her, French Monsier Soulange-Boudin and yes - she’s the not-so-illicit love child of the white Yulan and the Black Lily magnolias. Lily (pointed and purple) met Yulan (pure and white) and the result is a heavenly mix of purple and ivory who spreads her boughs into a rounded shape 4m wide and 6m tall. The perfect small tree to welcome spring.



Magnolia soulangiana. Photo - steidi/