One of the first trees to provide vivid color in late winter is the Saucer Magnolia ( Magnolia x soulangeana). During late February and early March the prominent gray fuzzy buds open to become large goblet shaped blooms. On bare branches, the white, pink, or purple blossoms are a much awaited harbinger of spring. There may be some years when the blossoms will be damaged by spring frosts, but the gamble is worth it. Michael Dirr says the popular Saucer Magnolia “is often overused but with ample justification.”
The parents of the Saucer Magnolia, Magnolia liliflora and Magnolia denudata were originally native to the mountains of China. From the mountains they were transplanted to Chinese temple gardens where they were cultivated for centuries. Traders brought these species to Europe the late 18th century where they captured the attention of Étienne Soulange-Bodin. Disillusioned from his service in Napoleon’s army, Soulange -Bodin found solace in horticulture. He founded France’s Royal Institute of Horticulture and later was in charge of the grounds of Empress Josephine’s final home. In the 1820’s, Solange-Bodin crossed the M. liliiflora and M. denudata to create the Magnolia x soulangeana. By the 1830’s the Saucer Magnolia became the rage in Britain and the U.S.
Well suited for the urban landscape, the Saucer Magnolia is a low branched shrub-like tree that often reaches 30ft. Its smooth gray bark is often punctuated with horizontal lines of sap sucker holes. Its stiff dark green obovate leaves end in sharp tapered points. This pollution tolerant tree prefers rich well drained acidic soil. UT Extension classifies this tree as sewer safe and even suitable for large containers. Many striking cultivars are available.--- Jan Castillo, MG '05