Common name: Magnolia, or yulan in its native China.

Botanical name: Magnolia kobus, from Pierre Magnol, a French botanist, and Kobe from the city in Japan.

Family name: the Magnoliaceae or the Magnolia family has over 200 species in the Americas and Asia, and it lends its name to the higher order classification, the flowering plants, Magnolieae. From the fossil record, magnolia appears to have graced the Earth for the past 95m years. It is considered to be the original flowering plant. It has cone-like seed pods that were and still are pollinated by beetles because bees had not yet evolved.

Decorative value

The large flowers – white or pink-purple, some scented, on bare branches – are the appeal of magnolia. Most kinds have good shape and foliage in summer, which turns yellow in autumn and shows masses of silver-grey flower buds on bare stems in winter.

Magnolia kobus is a superb tree to about eight or 10m tall, covered with white flowers that have a light fragrance, flushed with pale pink at the base of the petals. This is a variable tree and while some forms are quite tall and tree-like others are much smaller. The star magnolia, Magnolia stellata, is mature at about 3m high. The lily tree, Magnolia denudata, also has fragrant flowers – white and chalice-shaped.

Garden use

The well-known Magnolia x soulangeana is a superb garden tree. This is the plant so often seen cramped in suburban gardens, when it really needs – not just adequate space to grow but – the right setting to be seen to best advantage. It will grow to 6m tall and wide, or more, though usually it is seen as a smaller tree.

Try to give it the space required and a backdrop of broad-leaved evergreen trees or a belt of bare-branched deciduous trees against which to show its fine flowers. These are held upright on the bare branches, tulip-shaped and in shades of white or pink-flushed white.

Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’ is similar but has dark-purple flowers. Magnolia loebnerii ‘Leonard Messel’ is a superb variety, smaller but still a small-sized tree and it needs space to grow.

Site and soil

To make spectacular trees, magnolias need the right soil conditions. They will grow on either acid or limy soil, but the soil must be rich and deep with plenty of humus and good, open drainage. In the early years, keep an area of at least 2m diameter completely free of weeds and grass by mulching with rotted leaves.

For best results, a sunny aspect is essential for the production of large numbers of flower buds and to avoid wind damage when these open in spring. Planting is best carried out in spring, in flower for those which flower as young trees.

Primroses in flower

Showing a nice run of flowers at the moment, garden primroses and polyanthuses are just coming into their best period. Polyanthus have several flowers on a long central stem while primroses sprout from the base – otherwise they have little difference. The modern kinds of polyanthus and primroses have been bred largely for use in containers. Some of the new colours are rather brash but if you want a blast of colour, these will do the job. They are excellent for a container or small flower bed near the house, perhaps too gaudy for use further back in the garden. The modern hybrids are vigorous, easy to grow and stand up reasonably well to most weather conditions.

Because of their early-flowering and larger flowers, severe wet and windy weather can set them back, although they have done well in recent weeks and they will send up more flowers after a time. They can be planted now in full flower, if you want a spot of colour in containers or flower beds over the next few weeks. Check the plants for greenflies before buying them. Wet conditions can cause the leaves of the polyanthus and primroses to rot and it is best to plant them into an open compost or soil.

This week’s reminders

Fruit, vegetables and herbs

The next few weeks are the ideal time to sow most kinds of vegetable seeds, and although it has by times been very cold and very wet in recent weeks, it is amazing how fast things can turn around when the weather finally starts to improve. Ensure that the ground is adequately fertile.

Trees, shrubs and roses

Check all young trees and shrubs planted since last autumn to ensure they are not being wind-rocked and water them if the weather turns dry. One watering when the leaves are expanding can make a big difference. Evergreens can be planted as the sap rises over the next few weeks.


Lifting and dividing herbaceous flowers should be completed by now, but can still be carried out if necessary, as long as the plants are watered until they re-establish fully. Gladiolus corms can be planted directly outdoors from now on. So too can lilies, which can also be potted up for summer.


Mowing should have been carried out a couple of times already. The cold spell stopped grass growth in its tracks. Grass is very quickly affected by cold weather because it is so shallow rooted. Lawns need feeding in most cases, especially if grass grew poorly last year.

Greenhouse and house plants

Sow seeds of tomatoes for greenhouse growing without delay, also sweet peppers and chilli peppers, or buy some plants later. Begin feeding all greenhouse plants and house plants strongly to move them into rapid growth. Check for greenflies and other pests.

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In the garden with Gerry Daly: golden bell

In the garden with Gerry Daly: spring sparkler