Mad about magnolias
In the heart of winter, Magnolia campbellii is the first magnolia to open and promises the delight of a new spring. In fact, all the tarseal and concrete in the central city of New Plymouth lifts the temperature and the cluster of trees in the Huatoki Reserve by Powderham Street open their first flowers in June, before they have even shed all their autumn foliage.
For the past two winters, I have spent more time than I should have taking photos of our tree against the snow-capped peak of Mount Taranaki. The magnolia and the maunga, I call the series. There is a distance of maybe 40km or so between the two, so this is right at the limits of both the zoom on my camera and my technical skills, but I keep trying for the perfect image without having to resort to cheating with filters and the computer.
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When I look at my photo file on Magnolia campbellii, I have a series of trees framed against backgrounds – one in our local town of Waitara against the spire of the Church of St John the Baptist; a specimen at Tupare Garden with the backdrop of the rushing Waiwhakaiho River; the aforementioned Powderham Street specimens against a carpark building; even one on Mount Baotai in China, framed by roof lines. I think what drives me is the effort to capture the spirit of the over-the-top, gorgeous flowers appearing in a cool winter landscape.
Magnolia campbellii is one of the oldest varieties in New Zealand. It dates back to the second half of the 19th century and was sold commercially by Duncan & Davies as early as 1915.
Before you rush out to buy one, you need to be aware that this species can take many years before it sets flower buds and ultimately grows into a very large tree. Its early season blooming also makes it vulnerable to frost damage in cooler parts of the country. If you are only going to plant one magnolia, maybe look to one of the more recent hybrids, although Magnolia campbellii itself belongs in any collection.
Our specimen here was one of the first trees planted in our park by Mark's father, Felix, in the early 1950s. The pink Magnolia campbellii is the most common in Taranaki. Here the majority are the particularly good 'Quaker-Mason' form. It is traced back to Thomas Mason (commonly referred to as Quaker Mason, on account of him being a Quaker), a prominent Wellington horticulturist who arrived as a new settler in 1841 and had a huge influence through until the end the century.
But the pink that we take as the norm here, is in fact not at all common in the wild where most Magnolia campbellii are white. Apparently our pink originated in Darjeeling – an area in northeast India that is better known for its tea.
Overall, Magnolia campbellii has a wide natural distribution. It grows from eastern Nepal, across Sikkim and Assam into southwestern China and down to northern Burma. We were thrilled to see a plant on Mount Baotai in China last year, even though its pale pink blooms showed it to be a pretty average form of the species. We couldn't tell if it was naturally occurring or had been moved into its current position, as the modern Chinese are wont to do.
We don't have a white Magnolia campbellii in our garden, so I went to Tupare Garden in New Plymouth to photograph their specimen that dates back to the late 1940s or early 1950s. The blooms have a curious green flush at the juvenile stage but the tree is not a strong growing, distinctive form. It is not a patch on all the pink 'Quaker-Mason' specimens around but there will be other white forms available in New Zealand.
The other popular form is Magnolia var. mollicomata. It originates from areas further to the east and flowers several weeks later. Our fine specimen of purple 'Lanarth' (or Magnolia campbellii subsp. mollicomata 'Lanarth', to be pedantic) does not flower until halfway into August. And I have yet to see a purple magnolia that eclipses the glorious sight of 'Lanarth' in full bloom.
'Lanarth' is another example of a variety that belongs in every magnolia collection but, as a single specimen for the home gardener, it is not without issues. Even if you can find one for sale – and it is not easy to propagate and get growing strongly – it is not a reliable, commercial plant. Its biggest problem is that it only sets flower buds on its branch tips. This means that all of them come out at once, giving a spectacular but brief show and a bad bout of spring weather can cut that display overnight.
Modern hybrids are often selected for the plant's ability to set flower buds down the stems so they come out in sequence over a longer time. We are happy to enjoy this species in its glory and I have a particular affection for what I call petal carpets. 'Lanarth' creates a wonderful carpet down by our largest pond.
Besides, this particular magnolia has a special place in our family history. Mark's father Felix imported what was meant to be 'Lanarth' in the early 1950s when first planting out the park area here. It took some years to get large enough to flower and when it did, it was clearly something else.
Enquiries from the nursery source, Hilliers in the UK, established that it was most likely a cross with Magnolia sargentiana var. robusta. They sent a replacement, grafted this time to ensure it was correct and that is what we have growing as a splendid specimen.
Felix named the earlier seedling for his youngest son and Magnolia 'Mark Jury' went on to be the not-so-secret Jury weapon in breeding a whole new range of magnolias. It is the father of 'Athene', 'Atlas', 'Iolanthe', 'Lotus', 'Milky Way' and 'Serene', and is also influential in the following generations of 'Felix Jury', 'Black Tulip' and 'Honey Tulip'.
The true 'Lanarth' finally flowered here in the 1960s. It became the key to Felix's best known success, the colour breakthrough from purple into red tones, first seen in Magnolia 'Vulcan'. The rest, as they say, is history and New Zealand is now recognised internationally as the home of the best red hybrids.
These days, with the downstream breeding, the purple tones of 'Lanarth' are being eliminated in favour of purer red shades. Now there are several good red magnolias on the market, but no large, purple-flowered, garden-friendly improvement on the original 'Lanarth'.
It has been attempted. We just haven't seen one yet that we think is as good as, let alone better than, the original.
'Lanarth' originates from seed. It is one of only three that germinated from those collected by plant hunter George Forrest in southern Yunnan, China, near the border with Burma in 1924.
There were other collections of Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata around that time but most flowered pale. Being raised from seed, there was the typical seedling variation that one expects from these early specimens and 'Lanarth' was the standout, particularly in flower colour.
To maintain the desirable characteristics of 'Lanarth', it is necessary to propagate subsequent plants vegetatively, which means layering, budding or grafting (it is does not generally strike from cutting).
- NZ Gardener