APRIL 5, 2006
Madame, would you like a tulip tree or a Magnolia?
There is a very good reason that plants have scientific names. Scientific names are precise and unique. No two plants can have the same scientific name. But with common names it’s a whole different ball game. Case in point is the “tulip tree”.
If you lived on the east coast and went into the garden center asking for a tulip tree the nursery professional would probably show you a tall slender looking tree with 6 inch leaves in the shape of a tulip flower. In fact, tulip trees are native to the hardwood forests of the eastern seaboard. When I lived in Virginia back in the 70’s my little house was surrounded with these stately trees that bloom in late spring after they leaf out. The flowers are yellow and orange and while interesting, are mostly lost in the foliage. The tree I am referring to is a Liriodendron tulipifera. How’s that for a mouth full.
Out here on the west coast we have another tree that is often referred to as a tulip tree that has absolutely no relation to the real tulip tree but because the flowers (rather than the foliage) remind people of tulips and maybe also because it blooms about the same time that tulips bloom, is incorrectly called a tulip tree. In fact, we are talking about a Magnolia and to be more precise it is usually the saucer Magnolia.
There are many versions of this Magnolia tree and the one you are seeing around town now is the Star Magnolia. This is a sweet tree that only grows to about 10-12 feet tall and as wide. Some might say it is really just a big shrub but for the smaller yards that most of us are being forced to live in it is the perfect size. The flowers are pure white and the petals are 3 inches long and ˝ inch wide. It has an overall delicate look about it that I rather enjoy. The variety Leonard Messell boasts pink blushed petals that are slightly larger than the Star Magnolia.
Getting ready to bloom are a whole slew of varieties that fall into the saucer magnolia category. Rustica rubra is probably the classic version you see in most older yards. The flowers are a good 6 inches across and are formed into a cup shape with an extra row creating the saucer, hence the name “cup and saucer” magnolia. It is this flower that many gardeners refer to as the tulip flower and where the confusion comes from.
The common saucer magnolia makes a tree with a rounded head that can be 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide. The leaves are coarse and rank and the fall color is lousy but when gardeners see them blooming in the spring that simply can’t resist. Depending on the variety, the flowers can range from pure white to dark, dark purple. Magnolia liliflora nigra is one we carry that has marvelously dark purple flowers. Randy is another and the list goes on and on. Breeders have been developing these for years.
If you prefer a more upright tree with a straight single trunk then there are several choices as well. Vulcan has huge (and I mean huge) dark reddish-purple blooms and Yellow Bird and Elizabeth actually have yellow blooms (a relatively new color for magnolias). These varieties will grow 25-30 feet tall and only 10-12 feet wide so they will fit into a narrower space although they still have the same coarse foliage and lousy fall color. I guess you can’t have everything.
Early April is when the magnolias come into their glory and it is the best time to go shopping for them. You can see them in full bloom now in the nursery and choose the colors and growth habit that suits you best. Magnolias prefer full to half-day sun and will grow in just about any type of soil. They are tolerant of a good deal of abuse once they are established. Excessively wet soil may be the only limiting factor in establishing these durable trees in our yards. There are no bugs or diseases to worry about and the most common problem is that gardeners simply don’t allow enough room for them to mature. You can even espalier them on a south facing wall although it’s a heck of a lot of work to keep them in check.
Whenever a customer comes into the nursery this time of year and asks for a tulip tree we just automatically translate their request into a magnolia because we know that is what they really want. Just the same, now you know the difference.
Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at the nursery at 425-334-2002 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org