Magnolia trees are desirable for their small to medium rounded form; large, sometimes fragrant flowers; attractive green foliage that is evergreen in some species; and their resistance to insect and disease problems. The native range of magnolias is a little farther south than northeast Kansas, but there are several species and a few newer cultivars that have proven reliability in the Lawrence area.
One somewhat new variety is a southern magnolia named Bracken’s Brown Beauty. The selection has proven to be cold hardy in much of the Midwest, although planting in a location that offers protection from cold winter winds is still recommended. Bracken’s Brown Beauty magnolia has glossy evergreen leaves and large, creamy, lemony-scented flowers. When the flowers fade, attractive brown and red seed pods are left.
Butterflies magnolia has also been around a few years and is unique because of its yellow flowers. The variety was created by crossing the hardy cucumber tree magnolia with another species. Butterflies magnolias need protection from hot summer winds and cold winter winds. They are blooming now in the Lawrence area.
Bracken’s Brown Beauty and Butterflies magnolias grow to about 20 feet tall and around 15 feet wide at maturity. Both are a little more narrow and upright than most other magnolias.
Vulcan magnolia is a hybrid magnolia with very large, reddish-pink flowers (often described as ruby-red). Blossoms can be 10 to 12 inches in diameter and are very striking in early spring on leafless branches. The variety has tested cold hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 5 (farther north than Lawrence). At maturity, the tree is about 15 feet tall by 10 feet wide.
Marilyn (sometimes listed as Marillyn) magnolia is a shrubby magnolia with purple, tulip-shaped flowers. Although it grows to 10 to 15 feet tall, it looks more like a shrub than a tree and may sucker or have multiple stems. Reports of cold-hardiness are promising, but blossoms may get nipped by late frosts in years like this one.
Merrill magnolia is another hybrid bred for cold hardiness and flower selection. Plant in a protected location to protect the flowers, which are creamy white to pale pink, fragrant, and have narrower petals than the other magnolias described here. Merrill magnolia blooms heavy in early spring with attractive seed pods appearing in summer. The tree is about 20 feet tall and wide at maturity.
Ann and Jane magnolias have been around a little longer and are reliably hardy. They were bred to bloom later than other magnolias to avoid losing blossoms to late frosts. Ann has deep reddish-purple flowers and grows to about 10 feet tall and wide. Jane has reddish-purple flowers tinged in white and is slightly larger (to 15 feet tall and wide) at maturity.
Sweetbay, saucer, and star magnolias and selected varieties of each of these species are also suitable for northeast Kansas and are the most common magnolias seen in the area.
All the magnolias mentioned here are best planted while still dormant or in very early spring. Take extra care with watering and mulching the first year or two to reduce stress for the tree and encourage root growth.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.