The saucer magnolia was created in France
Long before the leaves appear on other shrubs and trees, the saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) blooms with huge, saucer-shaped blooms in shades of pink, purple, magenta or white. The magnolia was bred by Frenchman Étienne Soulange-Bodin and bloomed for him in the spring of 1826. While it appears that he named the plant after himself, it seems that the Société Linnéenne de Paris honored him with the designation. The large, showy blossoms quickly captivated gardeners all over Europe and North America and are still extremely popular today. Plant breeders have created at least 100 cultivars over the years and are still refining and experimenting with it today. It is hardy in USDA Zones 4-9 and ultimately grows to between twenty to thirty feet tall, if it isn't kept pruned as a smaller shrub form.
Growing the saucer magnolia
The saucer magnolia prefers well-drained, acidic soil and plenty of moisture for its first few seasons. After that, it can tolerate some drought, however since the flower buds form during the summer and fall for the next season, extreme conditions could affect the next spring show. It prefers full sun, however it is advisable not to plant it in a sheltered, southern location. The warmer conditions often prompt it into an early flush of blooms that late frosts and freezes can ruin. If possible, do site it in an area protected from strong winds though. The large blooms (sometimes over ten inches in diameter) are often shredded and damaged by strong spring winds. Mine is in an open area of my yard and while it does bloom a little later, I've never had the blossoms freeze. Strong winds have shredded them on occasion though. The young trees often have an upright growth pattern and as the magnolia matures, it slowly becomes more rounded and spreads outward. My saucer magnolia is still quite young. As it is only about five years old, it is still growing upright, however, I keep it pruned to a single trunk and remove young branches that sprout from the base to maintain the tree form. If you choose to maintain it as a shrub, let a few sprouts stay and only remove those that outgrow its space.
Take cuttings of the saucer magnolia for more plants
Since these are hybrid plants, they either do not set seed, or plants grown from the seeds won't produce an identical plant. You can make more plants from your prunings though. Take six to eight inch cuttings in the summer once the terminal bud at the tip of the branch has opened. Keep the cuttings moist by either placing them in a container of water or wrapped in wet paper towels. Strip all of the foliage off except for a couple of leaves at the top. Split the bottom of the stem up a couple of inches to help it draw more moisture and dip the end into rooting hormone. Place in moist planting medium in containers and keep in bright light, but out of direct sun. You should see signs of new leaves appearing in six to eight weeks. While the cuttings are difficult to root, chances are about 25% of them will take and grow into little trees. Keep them protected and well-watered for their first year.
The saucer magnolia is great in the garden and for pollinators
While the ultimate height and rounded shape seems to lend itself to a shade tree, it does grow slowly and most people think it best as an accent plant. It small size lends itself to suburban lots, although it does wonderfully on larger properties as well. Just remember that the large blossoms can litter walkways and patios once they fall, so keep that in mind when choosing a place to plant your saucer magnolia. Birds like to nest in the branches and if your magnolia produces seeds, they like them as well. However, deer tend to avoid it, so that is a plus if Bambi considers your property his personal buffet. Do note that very hungry deer are rarely picky and if nothing else is available, they will munch on magnolias too. Our fragile honeybee and pollinator population is grateful for the early flowers and are often seen foraging in early spring for some of the first food of the year. Beetles and ants also like the pollen and nectar as well, so it is a good addition to your butterfly and pollinator gardens too.
Saucer magnolias are plentiful and inexpensive
Early spring flowering trees and shrubs brighten up the dull, late winter landscape. They are a sure sign that winter is about over and better weather is ahead. The saucer magnolia is a bold statement and lights up the landscape wherever it is planted and it is welcome nutrition for early-foraging pollinators. Few pests bother it and it does have a pretty golden color in the autumn, so is good for more than just the spring season. The older cultivars are inexpensive and often offered at big box stores. I paid less than $20 for mine in a large, three gallon container at a street fair one April, so keep an eye out and snatch one up if you see them offered. They make for a great addition to any garden.