Everything You Need to Know About Magnolia Trees—from Their Prehistoric Origins to Identifying and Growing Them

white magnolia
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To say that Magnolias look pretty darn good for their age is a vast understatement. They're thought to be the oldest flowering plant on Earth, dating back around 145 million years. They appeared just after ferns and conifers and stood among dinosaurs. For more mind-blowing perspective, consider that beetles served as their first pollinators—since bees wouldn't show up for about another 15 million years. Magnolias are versatile, too. They can be cultivated as trees, shrubs, or container plants. Their flowers can be white, pale pink, rich yellow, and deep magenta. And their extracts have been used to treat rheumatism, flavor miso, and formulate countless perfumes.

Some deciduous varieties can survive hundreds of miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line; others tolerate enough pollution to thrive in city gardens. And many of the two-hundred-plus species are precocious spring bloomers, meaning their flowers announce themselves well before the tender leaves have sprouted.

To encounter these arboreal superstars en masse, head to Wave Hill, the 28-acre estate-turned-public-garden in the Bronx, New York, where Magnoliaceae are a celebrated attraction. The site's original head gardener, Marco Polo Stufano, planted dozens when the place opened to visitors in the late 1960s, including a cluster of small star magnolias (M. stellata) on the front lawn. He also inherited a stalwart M. denudate that stands sentry at the entrance, and which Stufano estimates is about 100 years old. It gives an early—and flamboyant—show every April. "We thought it was going to leave us long ago," he says. "But it powers on."

"If the trees are magnificent, the blooms are sublime," says Wave Hill's current director of horticulture, Louis Bauer. "Look closely and compare them," he says. "They all have the same parts, but in wildly different shapes, geometries, and colors." To expand that range, breeders have introduced a surge of hybrids in the past 25 years, including an array of coveted yellow varieties, such as 'Elizabeth,' 'Butterflies,' 'Judy Zuk,' and 'Woodsman.' "But I have a soft spot for the white-petaled hybrid x wieseneri," Bauer says of a rare, late-blooming cultivar introduced in 1889 at the Paris World Exposition. "It has an Elizabethan collar of red stamens at the center, and it seems like a gift when it blooms in the summertime." Pictured here is a later-blooming shrub from Asia, the deciduous M. sieboldii; it was originally an understory plant in forests. Its nodding white flower is easier to see than more upright blooms, and its leaves have an elegant silvery underside.

To grow your own beauties, learn the basics. They fare well in many regions; even the classic southern magnolia (M. grandifolia), with its dark, waxy leaves and voluptuous white petals, can flourish as far north as lower New England. Once established, the trees are remarkably hands-off, as long as they're well-situated in your yard. Some varieties can handle a little frost, while others need to be sheltered from cold winds. When you find one you like, check the plant tag and talk to an expert at the nursery to see how big it will grow and what its branching will be like, says Bauer: "Be sure to know more than just the cultivar name. Get to know its nature." That, after all, is the secret to a lifelong match.

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Forever Young

saucer magnolia
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This saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) was planted at Wave Hill garden in New York City about 70 years ago. Fragrant mauvy-pink flowers emerge early in the season, which makes it one of the most popular deciduous varieties available today.

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Tree of Life

magnolia x loebneri
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Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel' is one of the smallest and hardiest varieties at Wave Hill. Its star-shaped flowers each feature 10 to 15 strappy petals, and it's less susceptible to frost than many of its relatives. "It looks all dressed up for a party when you see it in bloom," says Louis Bauer, the garden's director of horticulture.

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Magnolia Stellata

magnolia stellata
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Stellata is Latin for "starry," which describes the fragrant blooms that fill this compact (15 to 20 feet), early-flowering, cold-hardy tree.

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M. Denudata

magnolia denudata
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Pussy-willow-like buds give way to lemon-scented, goblet-shaped white blossoms that appear on bare branches.

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M. X Loebneri 'Leonard Messel'

magnolia x loebneri leonard messel
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This profuse bloomer has an open, rounded branching habit and abundant flowers that are pink on the outside and white inside.

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M. Stellata 'Rosea'

magnolia stellata rosea
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A sun-loving tree with striking gray bark produces these pale-pink petals, which turn nearly white by the end of their bloom time.

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M. 'Elizabeth'

magnolia elizabeth
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A hybrid developed by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 'Elizabeth' boasts six-inch yellow flowers and an elongated silhouette.

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M. X Wieseneri

magnolia x wieseneri
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Just one of these showstoppers, with its crimson stamens, makes an exquisite display. It blooms from spring into summer.

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M. 'Butterflies'

magnolia butterflies
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This hybrid's yellow flowers smell lemony, don't fade, and—thanks to a parent that's native to New York—do well in cooler climes.

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M. X Soulangeana 'Lennei'

magnolia x soulangeana lennei
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A vigorous grower that can withstand zone 4 temperatures, 'Lennei' produces dramatic two-tone flowers that can span eight inches across.

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M. Salicifolia 'Else Frye'

magnolia salicifolia else frye
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The showy white blooms on this Japanese native are lavish, and the willowlike leaves release an anise scent when crushed.

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