The smiling face of Magnolia

Lilacs... always a firm garden favourite.

“THE banana-like scent, the chief appeal of this plant, is very faint in the morning, but intensifies during the day”.

So wrote Peter Valder in “Garden Plants of China”. This plant, also known in China as “Smiling Face” perfumes the air in spring continuing into summer. Its tiny brownish-purple flowers were sold in Hong Kong as hair ornaments and the flower buds are sometimes used to perfume hair oil and tea.

So what is this delightful plant? Port Wine Magnolia (Michelia figo), a member of the magnolia family, but not strictly a magnolia, differing most noticeably in the flowers being borne in the axils of the leaves. A medium-size, evergreen shrub to about 2m tall and wide, this is a sheer delight and is suitable for every garden. This Michelia was introduced back in 1798 from China.

Port Wine Magnolia... intensely fragrant at this time of the year.

ANOTHER variety to think about is M. doltsopa, a magnificent small-to-medium, semi-evergreen shrub or small tree with 15cm-18cm long, distinctive leathery leaves and buds that form in autumn to burst into flower in spring.

The multi-petalled white, heavily scented flowers open about this time here. Native to West Yunnan, Tibet and the West Himalayas, it was introduced into western gardens in 1918, and given the prestigious Award of Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1961, a guarantee of an outstanding plant.

TWO unfamiliar varieties have been bred by Bob Cherry, of Paradise Plants, at Kulnura, north of Gosford. Cherry, famous for his breeding of Camellia sasanquas, has been on plant-hunting expeditions to China and other regions in the Himalayas dozens of times looking for rare plants he can develop and bring to the public.

Michelia yunnanensis or “Paradise Perfection” as Cherry says “embodies the timeless mystery and peaceful contemplation of the temple slopes of China”.

This is a relatively new form with all the elegance and perfume of the common Michelia with the added bonus of more flowers and compact dense foliage.

M.y. “Starlight”, a seedling selection from Paradise Plants, has lime-green buds opening to a profusion of starry, lemon-white flowers, 5cm across. The long flower time and delightful fragrance lasts from winter to spring.

Both these can be grown as a specimen plant or in a group to make a real statement in your garden.

GOULBURN is known as the Lilac City and last month had its Lilac Time Festival. Here we are a little later with our flowering time of these absolutely delightful shrubs now coming into full bloom.

Lilacs or more correctly Syringa vulgaris are hardy, drought-resistant, deciduous-flowering shrubs that perform extra well in this district.

The fragrance, it is said, becomes an inseparable part of their magic. Mostly native to China some varieties have been bred in England since the mid-17th century.

That Yunnan name crops up again and again in the plant world with lilacs being no exception. Syringa yunnanensis was discovered by the Abbe Delavay in 1887 and introduced into western gardens by the great plant hunter, George Forrest in 1907 and given the Award of Merit in 1928. It is impossible to even begin describing the hundreds of varieties of lilac, so now is the time to check out colours at your local garden centre.

Decision time

  • Inspect your garden for vacant spots and plant any or all of the above. Do check the ultimate size of plants and allow them space to grow.

  • Remove violas and pansies and replace with summer-flowering petunias.

  • Wash infestations of aphids of plants with a strong jet of water.

  • Plant out tomatoes if you are game, but continue to cover at night.

  • For your diary, The Horticultural Society’s Spring Exhibition and Rose Show, Wesley Church Centre National Circuit, Forrest, noon-5pm, on Saturday, November 12 and 11.30 to 4pm, Sunday, November 13.  Great show, great plant stall and great garden advice.

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