Gardening / Hail the mighty magnolias

Massed flowers of Magnolia stellata in Cedric's garden.

Massed flowers of Magnolia stellata in Cedric’s garden.

ONE of the most magnificent plants about to flower are magnolias. Ranging from shrubs to small trees they need sufficient space to grow gracefully; there’s nothing worse than a distorted shrub crowded out by other shrubs.

The magnolia family is huge with Hillier’s “Manual of Trees and Shrubs”, the bible of plants, listing 110 varieties, by no means all of them. Unfortunately, we have relatively few available in Australia, although more varieties have become available in recent years.

In 1703 the missionary Charles Plumier, famous for introducing fuchsias to the West, described a tree and flowers he first saw, calling it Magnolia after the French botanist Pierre Magnol.

There are two varieties of magnolias, the North American evergreen and the Asian deciduous, my subject this week. Magnolia denudata and M. liliflora are the best known of all Chinese flowering trees, the latter having been cultivated for more than 1000 years.

The big, bold flowers of Magnolia soulangiana.

The big, bold flowers of Magnolia soulangiana.

Magnolia stellata or Star Magnolia is suitable for almost every garden, rarely exceeding three metres, with its delicate, fragrant, star-like white flowers opening in profusion now.

Introduced from Japan in 1862, it was honoured with a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit in 1922. Magnolia soulangiana, which was also given an AGM in 1932, has always been extremely popular with gardeners with its huge, tulip-shaped flowers.

Magnolias have few growing requirements, preferring a good depth of soil plus plenty of organic matter such as compost.

Good drainage is essential. If this is a problem, plant on a mound of soil. Popular opinion, as with other acid-loving plants such as camellias and rhododendrons, is that they need copious amounts of water. Whereas, in fact, they are surprisingly drought tolerant.

With all these plants in our garden, even in the drought, I still only turned the drip system on one hour, once a week. This year, with regular rainfall, I have not used any drippers for six months.

IN older suburbs oak trees provide wonderful shade in summer, even though the acorns can be slippery underfoot. And yet those little cups are responsible for some of the world’s highest-quality leather.

The oak Quercus valonia’s acorns are the best.

In the UK, there’s a Devon tannery that’s been on the same site continuously since Roman times using oak bark to get the right amount of tannin to process the hides. Then acorn cups are crushed and added to the brew to increase the tannin levels.

The hides stay in the tanning brew for nine months with a further six months of processing to make some of the finest leather in the world from saddles to shoes. Even in Australia, acorns are a valuable source of food for pigs.

• THE Bowral Home and Garden Show is being held this weekend, September 6-7. Details at

• THE Horticultural Society’s Spring Bulb and National Camellia Show, Wesley Centre, National Circuit, Forrest will be held on the weekend of September 13 (noon-5pm) and 14 (11.30am-3.45pm). On display will be the largest collection of daffodils in Australia plus the Australian Camellia show. Entry by gold coin.

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