Because spring arrived early on the West Coast this year (a month ahead of schedule in some cases), the normal discussion of May flowers is somewhat academic. Tree peonies, for example, are normally flowering near the end of May, but unless visitors came to the garden in April or plan for the first week of May, they’ll be lucky to see these spectacular blooms at all. Likewise the normally May-blooming rhododendrons. So, what’s to see in May? Plenty, but high on the list this year are evergreen magnolias. After an excellent ripening period last summer and a mild winter, many of the Chinese evergreen magnolias in the David C. Lam Asian Garden are going to have their best year to date. Two rare species in particular are worth mentioning here.
Magnolia ernestii (Wilson’s michelia, yellow lily tree) is probably the fastest and tallest growing of all of the hardy Asian evergreen species. It is also one of the most free-flowering. The creamy white flowers are 5 to 6 cm in diameter and exceptionally fragrant. Native to western China in low- to middle-elevation forests where it grows to 25 m tall, the species is named for Ernest Henry (“Chinese”) Wilson, who collected extensively in China for Veitch Nursery in England, and the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. Because of its size (now more than 15 m tall), this tree and its flowers can only be seen from a couple of vantage points, one on Decaisne Trail and the other, opposite it on Wilson Trail. The second magnolia doesn’t require neck craning to appreciate its beautiful flowers. Magnolia conifera (Chinese cone magnolia) is located to the east of where Farrer and Ludlow Trails meet. Like M. ernestii, it is another southwestern Chinese native and relatively new to cultivation. Unlike M. ernestii, trees are more pyramidal with spreading lower branches that are maintained close to the ground. Plants have a rather dense, well-foliaged look. In contrast to most cultivated magnolias, the flowers M. conifera are nodding when first opening and then usually fully pendent when mature. The name conifera (Latin: bearing cones) refers to the small cone-shaped fruits that hang down from the branches after flowering.
To view examples of one of these plants mentioned, visit our forums.
Article submitted by Douglas Justice, Associate Director, Horticulture and Collections. Forum photos posted by Wendy Cutler.