First introduced from Japan in the 1860s, the star magnolia has become a staple of many American gardens. And for what it may lack in size, it sure makes up for in personality. Considered one of the smallest magnolias, it nevertheless produces a big tree’s worth of flowers. Tinted pink or white, the blossoms hang like fallen stars from the shrub’s smooth, bare branches in early spring.
THE SMALL GARDEN’S MAGNOLIA
Now, even small gardens can have a magnolia! Moreover, this species is slow-growing, meaning it won’t overwhelm your landscape. Topping out at a manageable 10 to 15 feet, the star magnolia works perfectly as a specimen tree while also furnishing a great backdrop to a mixed shrub border.
Still, in most people’s view, the tree’s most valuable asset is its early spring blossoms. Typically flowering in early March, the star magnolia is covered with blooms when most other ornamentals are just starting to bud. Moreover, the flowers are slightly fragrant and each composed of more than a dozen ribbon-like petals. And some varieties boast as many as 30.
And while star magnolias are typically associated with white flowers, there are also varieties that produce shades of pink. All of them are a magnet for pollinators, which gives your other plants an early start on the season.
FOR STAR MAGNOLIAS, THE SHOW NEVER STOPS
But, for those who think star magnolias are all about spring, think again. The little trees offer fall and winter interest as well. In autumn, the foliage turns yellow, then bronze, providing an interesting complement to other fall colors.
Furthermore, star magnolia’s twiggy, many-branched shape provides great winter interest. The branches are colored a shiny, chestnut brown while the tree’s smooth gray trunk slowly turns silvery with age. As an added plus, the buds, which appear in late winter, are fat and fuzzy, just like pussy willows.
TOP STAR MAGNOLIA VARIETIES TO TRY
Ready to give star magnolia a try? Below are some the most popular cultivars that offer reliable, low-maintenance early spring color.
‘Centennial’ produces fragrant, waterlily-shaped blossoms in early to mid spring. The large white flowers often have a pink tinge at the base of the petals.
Magnolia stellata ‘Centennial’
‘Jane Platt’ produces double, scented, pale pink flowers with long, narrow petals in early to mid spring.
Magnolia stellata ‘Jane Platt’
‘Royal Star’ has pale pink buds that open in early spring to pure white flowers. In particular, this cultivar is known for its almost 5-inch (12 cm) wide flowers with up to 30 petals. ‘Royal Star’ blooms later than the species.
Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’
‘Rosea’ is a pink-flowered variety. It has a rounded shape and dense bushy habit. This cultivar flowers a month later than the species, or in late April.
Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’
HOW AND WHERE TO PLANT
Star magnolia flowers are vulnerable to damage by late spring frosts, so it’s best to plant the trees in a sheltered spot. While they’ll do fine in full sun, they’ll perform best in morning sun with filtered shade in the afternoon. Generally, the more exposed the location, the earlier the flowers open. Like most plants, star magnolias prefer moist, well-drained soil.
Magnolia stellata really shines when viewed against a dark background. Site it in front of a stand of deep green arborvitae, a yew hedge or even a dark brick house and watch its flowers ‘pop.’ Daffodils with cream or white petals and yellow cups make excellent early-spring companions. Check out Narcissus ‘Sovereign’, ‘Golden Echo’ or the orange-cupped ‘Barrett Browning’ for a dramatic effect.