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Plants I love: Star magnolia

Magnolias can languish in their formative years, but perseverance will be rewarded. Here Graham discusses his favourite magnolia's story.

Words: Graham Ross



In 1975 I bought Magnolia 'G.H. Kearn', impressed by its deep-pink, tulip-shaped buds opening to glorious starry, pale-pink flowers. Knowing we weren’t in our first home forever I planted it in the biggest container I could find - an old metal washing machine tub. It was 15 years before we found ourselves settled and could removed it from its metal ‘prison cell’. This much deserved freedom didn't come too soon as it was languishing, as do all magnolias in their formative years, and quickly needed a permanent garden address.

Initially the magnolia was very slow-growing. As ‘prison warden’ I was aware that magnolias can sulk after transplantation and took extra care to ensure its recovery. Sandra's Magic Magnolia Mulch annually did the job. (Find the recipe online at

The magnolia has graced our garden with gorgeous late spring blooms ever since - now 44 years since purchase.

I could never find much information about this resilient and beautiful spring star other than its name. Reference books were of little help so this year I decided on a deeper dig into the background of my dear old friend.

Research is now much more accessible thanks to Mrs Google, though I don't trust half, or more, of what I read there. But legitimate sources soon had my head spinning. Firstly my treasure is Magnolia x 'G. H. Kern', no 'a'. Secondly it is an American hybrid, first registered by plant breeder, Carl E. Kern Snr from Wyoming Nurseries, Cincinnati, Ohio, with plant patent # 820 granted on 11 January 1949.


I must admit, if you haven't noticed my passion before, I love this stuff, the historic backstory to plants. Further investigation showed Carl may have actually created the hybrid in 1935.
He raised it from a seedling of M. stellata, the Japanese star magnolia and therefore "excluded from M. soulangeana". It was named ‘George Henry Kern’, after a son perhaps?

Other respected sources suggested its parentage was M. stellataandM. liliiflora 'Nigra', which is logical when you look at this magnolia and know how popular the latter was in breeding at the time- and since.

Our ‘G.H. Kern’ has reached an ultimate height of 3m. It is a multi-stemmed, large upright shrub that hates being pruned and loves being pampered with fertiliser and mulch. (Who Flung Dung is an alternate treat to Sandra’s Magic Mulch and I also feed it with Kahoona.) It takes over the floral show just as its garden sister, M. heptapeta (syn, M. denudata) the creamy- white early flowering Yulan magnolia, is finishing and does it in wonderful style.

Magnolia ‘G.H.Kern’, has vanished from catalogues but similar star magnolias include M. stellata ‘Rosea’, M. x ‘Liliiflora Nigra’, M. X ‘Burgundy Star’, M. X ‘Pristine’ and M. X ’Heaven Scent’, all of which are available in Australia.


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Author: Graham Ross