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Magnolia Trees

The Martha Stewart Show, May 2008

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) is celebrating the 75th anniversary of their Judith D. Zuk Magnolia Plaza in 2008. This garden displays over 145 glorious magnolia trees, in almost 50 varieties. The garden's first planting in the spring of 1932 included 80 magnolias, 5,000 ivy plants, 650 euonymus, 450 California privet, 60 barberry shrubs, 20 akebias, and two tulip trees.

In March, the star magnolias bloom, covering the trees with millions of lacy white flowers. In April, the Plaza is splashed with the ivory, yellow, pink, and rich purple of 17 varieties of magnolias. The last of the collection, the sweet-bay magnolia, reveals its fragrant, creamy white flowers in June.

The Magnolia Plaza was designed by Harold Caparn, the Garden's landscape architect from 1912 to 1945, and funded by the BBG Auxiliary, which raised more than $1,500 for the project. The collection began with a formal planting of early blooming magnolias in what would later come to be known as Magnolia Plaza. The Garden continues to add about 10 trees to the space each year.

Judy Zuk
The result of a complex cross of M. acuminata, M. lilliflora Nigra, and M. stellata, this magnolia has deep yellow, almost golden, flowers with a blush of plum at each base that works its way up the tepals (the "petals" of a magnolia flower) as the flowers mature. An upright, almost columnar, grower, this plant's flowers -- which appear with the new foliage -- have a pleasant fruity fragrance. This beautiful magnolia was named for the much beloved recent former president of the BBG.

Another BBG hybrid, this magnolia resulted from a complex cross between M. acuminata and M. denudata. With bright yellow blooms, these flowers stay in bloom for several weeks. Growing to heights of 25 to 30 feet, this plant was named for Lois Carswell, a long time supporter of BBG and a former Chairperson of the Board.

Hattie Carthan
This BBG selection is the result of a cross between the Garden's first release, Evamaria, and another BBG test hybrid. The flowers, which emerge almost green, are a soft yellow and are striped with purple. It is a profuse bloomer that grows to between 20 and 25 feet, and was named for the founder of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

BBG's second release and likely still its best known, the Elizabeth is really the first yellow-flowered cultivated variety to enter the marketplace. A cross between M. acuminata and M. denudata, it has large, soft yellow blossoms and can grow to heights greater than 30 feet. It has a wide, almost rounded, habit and is also a prolific bloomer.

Hybridized by the late well-know magnolia breeder August Kehr, this wonderful selection has very large deep pink flowers that have a spicy fragrance. The trees form a nice oval crown, making it a great candidate for a variety of landscape uses. It blooms heavily from a young age, and has Woodsman, an M x brooklynensis-type cross, as one of its parents. The other parent is unknown.

Coral Lake
A David Leach cross of the Legend and Butterflies magnolias (M. acuminate and M. denudata), coral lake boasts a blend of pink, peach, and yellow that give its flowers an almost orange tone. It has an upright habit and blooms heavily.

Skyland's Best or Skyland's Best Yellow
A selection of the yellow-flowering subspecies of the native cucumber magnolia (M. acuminata v. subcordata), this plant was selected by Dick Figlar from a plant at Skylands, the state botanical garden of New Jersey. Bright, lemon yellow flowers bloom in mid to late spring, and can also re-bloom in summer. This is a small, pyramidal tree with a compact habit and a moderate growth rate.

Planting Magnolias
For most magnolias, you'll need moist, well-drained soil and moderate to full sun. For early blooming varieties, a little protection from winter winds or frost pockets is advised. Early blooming forms are susceptible to having their blooms damaged by frost in colder climates.

The magnolias discussed above bloom after many northeastern frost dates have passed. Trees can range from 15 to 20 feet to 40 to 50 feet and more, depending on the selection. When grown in suitable conditions, they are relatively fast growing and very easy to grow. There are magnolias that will survive colder climates, and others adaptable to hotter areas. Quite a number can be grown effectively between zones 6 and 8.

Special thanks to Patrick Cullina, vice president of horticulture and science research at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, for sharing this information and demonstrating how to graft a magnolia to create beautiful flower specimens. Special thanks to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for giving tickets to the garden to everyone in our studio audience.

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