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March 2008

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Star magnolia, cercidiphyllum and a large oval bed

Look up Magnolia stellata in any gardening encyclopaedia and you will invariably find it described as ‘a small tree or large shrub suitable for small gardens'. Well, I have news for those experts because Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star' now dominates our main garden which is not that small. It was given to me in 1987 when it was just under a metre tall. I planted it in a border that was mostly herbaceous but which had a Cercidiphyllum japonicum as the main focus tree with a few other flowering shrubs and shrub roses. The magnolia stayed as the less dominant tree for many years but it transpired that it was just biding its time, because it was obviously ambitious.

Every now and then I like to make changes in the garden so the border in which the magnolia lived had a makeover and, instead of being rather boomerang-shaped, became straight up and down. That's when the magnolia put on one of its several growth spurts in the way a gangly teenager does. I soon realized that it wasn't going to be restricted to the border so I put a circle of bricks, about three metres in diameter, round it, thus making it a feature in the lawn. This also served to keep the mower away from it because magnolias detest any disturbance of their root area - I once killed a young Magnolia salicifolia, with lemon-scented leaves, by constantly poking and prodding round it with a hoe, and planting dwarf bulbs within the area of its roots.

Some years passed and everything changed again because I decided to do away with the lawn which I considered a dratted nuisance, and highly labour-intensive. It was replaced by a large, vaguely oval-shaped bed surrounded by a gravel path. The magnolia has achieved its royal ambitions and now rules over this bed while the Cercidiphyllum japonicum in the border nearby is relegated to second place. Sometimes when I look at the magnolia I do a double-take because it gives the illusion of having moved from a border at the side to the centre of the garden, but of course it is the bed that has been moved round it ... isn't it? Most gardens have some magic in them but not quite that much.

Magnolias, in spite of having fleshy roots can withstand gales and storms better than a large number of trees.

I adore this tree because that's what it now is, and a large one at that, not just when it's in bloom but for most of the year. In March and April when it is festooned in myriad star-shaped white flowers it can be clearly seen from the south-facing windows of the house. At the risk of sounding fanciful these blooms, like snow, emit a white light. I dread frost at this time because it can turn the flowers into brown mushy blobs overnight. In summer it forms a pleasant backdrop to seasonal flowers and its green leaves change to buttery yellow before they drop, all at once, in late November or early December. That reveals the decorative silky flower buds promising bloom the following spring and they're there right through the winter.

Magnolias, in spite of having fleshy roots can withstand gales and storms better than a large number of trees. This was realized in the dreadful storms in southern England in 1987 when magnolias still stood while all around them were fallen trees. I'm finally having the unloved leylandii hedge at the bottom of the garden removed and one replacement tree will be a young Magnolia denudata. It's not having a chance where it lives now, too close to a beech tree, so it will be moved this spring.

 

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