Magnolia Tree Care Tips
They’re the iconic flowering tree of the South, y’all, but magnolias can be grown all over the U.S. Here’s how to choose and care for a magnolia tree for your yard.
Magnolias, y’all. They’re the iconic tree of the South, producing intoxicating blooms that make your yard feel like a Tennessee Williams stage set but without all the yelling and crippling dysfunction. The classic Southern magnolia is the famous specimen of this majestic tree, but there are many species and varieties of magnolias trees that can be grown almost anywhere in the United States. Whether you’re in Minnesota or Mississippi, there’s a magnolia that will grow in your garden.
Magnolias can be deciduous or evergreen trees and shrubs. They come in a vast array of cultivars and species that can suit most any garden’s size and growing conditions. Eight species of magnolias are native to the United States. Many other species are native to Asia. There are hundreds of hybrids, species and selections that thrive all over the place. Most magnolias thrive in full sun or partial shade with regular water.
Botanical Name: Magnolia spp.
Common Names: Magnolia, tulip tree, swamp magnolia, laurel magnolia
Hardiness Zones: 4 to 9
Bloom Time: Early spring for deciduous varieties, early summer for evergreen types
- Pick your site carefully, because magnolia trees have wide, shallow root systems that are easily damaged if you change your mind about location and try to move your little tree in a few years.
- Magnolias are big trees, with some varieties spreading 40 feet across. Make sure there’s room for the adult tree.
- Plant evergreen magnolias in early spring. Plant deciduous magnolias in the fall if you live in the South, and in the spring if you live in the North.
- Magnolias like well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Sweetbays are an exception and can thrive in soggy or heavy soil.
- You can get container saplings year round, or balled-and-burlapped saplings in the spring at nurseries. You don’t want to graft your own plant or grow from seed. Get a baby tree.
- Stake young trees to prevent them from being rocked by wind, damaging the roots.
- Evergreen magnolias need full sun. Deciduous species like part shade.
Growing and Caring for Magnolias
Magnolia trees need little help from you to thrive. They’ll live up to a century in the right growing conditions. Get this: A Southern magnolia tree planted by Andrew Jackson in 1828 at the White House lived 190 years. The severely decayed tree was cut down in 2017 because it was too dangerous to leave standing. But it was blooming right up to the end.
- Watering: Most varieties tolerate hot summers and some drought. But younger trees will need to be watered regularly for two years until they’re established. Drip irrigation is your friend.
- Pruning: Magnolias don’t need much pruning other than to lop off damaged branches or to shape up the tree to keep it pretty. The best time to prune is right after the tree finishes blooming in late spring or early summer.
- Fertilizing: If your tree is healthy and blooming, no fertilizer needed. Feed a young tree at time of planting.
- Keep foot traffic away from the root zone of young trees. Their roots are sensitive and easy to damage.
Pests and Problems
- Deer don’t usually munch magnolias. Good news if you have antlered friends visiting your garden.
- Magnolias are resistant to most pests and diseases.
Species and Hybrids
There’s a magnolia for every yard or garden. Read on to find the one for you.
Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
This is the tree most people think of when they hear the word ‘magnolia.’ This is the classic magnolia with giant, glossy leaves and dinner plate-sized white blossoms. It’s the state flower of Louisiana and Mississippi and is more Southern than sweet tea, y’all. It’s a slow grower, with a seedling taking 10 years to bloom, but it gets huge, 80 feet tall and as much as 40 feet across, becoming a truly majestic tree at maturity. Southern magnolias are evergreen but they drop leaves year round, so steer clear of this one if you hate raking. Cold hardy only to Zone 7. Popular selections: ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty,’ ‘Alta,’ ‘St. Mary,’ ‘Majestic Beauty,’ ‘Timeless Beauty,’ ‘Victoria,’ and ‘Little Gem’ (a dwarf variety)
Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
Also known as a swamp magnolia or a laurel magnolia, sweetbay magnolia looks a lot like a Southern magnolia but is a smaller, more cold-hardy tree, surviving as far north as Zone 5. In warm locations it’s an upright, evergreen tree; in colder climes it’s a deciduous shrub. Grows 10 to 35 feet tall. It’s a good choice for boggy locations or clay soils. Popular selections: ‘Green Mile,’ ‘Henry Hicks,’ ‘Moonglow,’ ‘Tensaw,’ ‘Sweet Thing’
Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)
Also known as a tulip tree, saucer magnolias were created by crossing a lily magnolia with a Yulan magnolia. Saucer magnolias can be a large shrub or small tree, reaching 20 to 25 feet in height. Flowers colors range from white with pink interiors to deep purple, depending on the cultivar. Cold hardy to Zone 4, so you can grow it a long way north. Popular selections: ‘Alba Superba,’ ‘Alexandrina,’ ‘Black Tulip,’ ‘Lennei,’ ‘Brozzonii,’ ‘Lilliputian,’ ‘Rustic Rubra,’ ‘Verbanica’
Star Magnolia (Magnolia sellata)
Cold-hardy trees that grow star-shaped white or pink flowers. These natives to Japan are one of the earliest blooming trees producing flowers in late winter or earliest spring. They’re small, reaching just 15 to 20 feet in height.
Popular selections: ‘Centennial,’ ‘Dawn,’ ‘Royal Star,’ ‘Two Stones,’ ‘Rosea,’ ‘Rubra,’ ‘Water Lily,’ and ‘Jane Platt’
Kobus Magnolia (Magnolia kobus)
A slow-growing species native to Japan and Korea, kobus magnolias reach heights of 25 to 50 feet. They can be grown as a deciduous tree or shrub, depending on how you prune them. They produce white, star-shaped flowers up to four inches across. Cold hardy to zone 5. Popular selection: ‘Wada’s Memory’
Loebner Magnolia (Magnolia x loebneri) are deciduous magnolias that produce pink or white star-shaped flowers on small trees that average 20 to 30 feet tall. They’re a cross between a kobus magnolia and a star magnolia. The leaves are smaller on these than other magnolias, no more than 5 inches long, and they’re hardy to Zone 5, so good for colder climates. Popular selections: ‘Ballerina,’ ‘Leonard Messel,’ ‘Merrill’
Cucumber Tree (Magnolia acuminate)
The cucumber tree magnolia gets its name from its fruits, which look a little like the veggie. This is the most cold-hardy group of magnolias, hardy to zone 4. It’s big like a Southern magnolia, reaching 60 feet in height, but has less showy flowers. Cucumber trees have greenish, tulip-shaped blooms about 2 inches across. Unlike other magnolias, they’ll produce fall color, with its leaves turning gold. Cucumber trees are native to the Appalachian United States. Popular selections: ‘Elizabeth,’ ‘Ivory Chalice,’ ‘Yellow Lantern’
Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla)
This one lives up to its name, with leaves that can be up to 32 inches long. It’s deciduous in most zones but evergreen in warmest zones. Native to the Southeastern U.S and Mexico, it produces dinner-plate-sized white blooms. Reaches a mature height of 30 to 40 feet.
Popular selections: ‘Palmberg,’ ‘Purple Spotted’
Lily Magnolia (Magnolia liliflora)
A smaller species that gets just 8 to 12 feet tall, the lily magnolia can be grown as a shrub or small tree. In early spring it puts out purple or pink flowers shaped like lilies. Native to China and cold hardy to zone 7. Popular selections: ‘Nigra,’ ‘O’Neil,’ ‘Gracilis’
Garden Design Ideas
- Large varieties of magnolias are ideal shade trees.
- Plant large, deciduous magnolias alone against a background that will show off their flowers in the spring and their gray limbs in the winter.
- Small, deciduous magnolias make fine understory trees or work as ornaments in borders.