12:48 p.m., March 22, 2011----When John Frett leads a guided walk of the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens on March 31, he's hoping to point out a few early blooming magnolias. More likely, though, he'll head to the greenhouse to show off magnolias in flower.
Non-native magnolias typically start blooming in Delaware in April while the native varieties wait until May.
With plenty of other March blooms to enjoy -- winterhazel, forsythia, hellebores and some dogwoods -- why the rush to spot magnolias?
The walk is a spring tradition that highlights plants available at the UD Botanic Gardens Plant Sale. Along with winterhazel, magnolias will be a featured plant of this year's sale, which is open to the public April 29-30.
Almost everyone loves magnolias. Frett, the director of the UD Botanic Gardens, is no exception. However, he's reluctant to single out a best-loved cultivar or species. “It's like picking a favorite child, they're all fabulous,” says Frett.
Magnolias vary widely. The 80 or so recognized species include trees and shrubs; deciduous plants and evergreens; cold-hardy varieties that do well in Maine and others that flourish in the tropics. About the only thing they have in common are the distinctive, tulip-shaped flowers. And most -- but not all -- are highly fragrant.
Under Frett's leadership, the magnolia collection at the UD Botanic Gardens has been expanded to 100 taxa of magnolia, with some 125 magnolias in all.
“The UDBG's fantastic collection of magnolias includes a nice variety of native and non-native species and cultivars,” says Sue Barton, Cooperative Extension's ornamental horticulture specialist.
Magnolias are widely scattered throughout the UD gardens but large groupings can be found between Townsend and Worrilow Halls, south of Townsend, and also north of UD's outdoor pool.
In assembling the collection, Frett looked for a progression of flowering, from the earliest species, in April, to varieties that are still going strong in June. He also included rich and unusual colors, found in the hybrid varieties. In addition to characteristic pink or white petals, magnolia blooms can be light to medium purple, deep purple that is almost red, and yellow.
Barton has one of the yellow varieties in her backyard. “I bought the 'Elizabeth' cultivar from the UDBG sale a number of years ago because my older daughter is named Elizabeth,” she explains. “This tree will be covered with yellow flowers in about a month.”
Despite its name, “Elizabeth” isn't Barton's favorite backyard magnolia. That distinction goes to the native sweetbay magnolias growing near her patio. “They're multi-stemmed so they help enclose the patio but you can still view through them so they don't make it claustrophobic,” she says.
Carrie Murphy, the Extension horticulture agent for New Castle County, says the sweetbay is the top pick for most Delaware gardeners. “Including me,” she adds.
“The sweetbay magnolia is by far one of my favorite plants -- it has beautiful late spring and early summer blooms and is lightly fragrant.”
But what Murphy really likes about the sweetbay isn't apparent at first glance. “I love the underside of the foliage -- when the wind blows and rustles the leaves, the silver underside of the leaves becomes visible and it's absolutely gorgeous,” she says.
Several sweetbays have been added to the Master Garden Demonstration garden at the county Extension office in Newark. At the demo garden, home gardeners often ask for recommendations for small flowering trees and sweetbay nicely fits the bill. It prefers moist soil and some shade and even works well in wet sites. But it's also adaptable to drier conditions, says Murphy.
Three cultivars of sweetbay will be available at the plant sale: “Mardi Gras,” with a butter-yellow variegated leaf; “Perry Paige,” a new dwarf variety only five to eight feet tall; and “Green Shadow,” a selection that Frett describes as “nearly an evergreen.”
Two other native magnolias will be sold, Magnolia macrophylla “Big Leaf Magnolia,” featuring huge leaves with a tropical feel and Magnolia pyramidata “Pyramid Magnolia,” which is considered rare. Also available will be three hybrids from native species, including two that originated from a cross with the native cucumber tree.
March 31: An hour-and-a-half walk through the UD Botanic Gardens, focusing on plant sale selections. 4 p.m. $5. Call 302-831-2531 or email [firstname.lastname@example.org] to register. Maximum 35 people.
UDBG plant sale
Public sale hours are 3-7 p.m., April 29; 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., April 30. For more information, call 302-831-2531 or go to the UDBG website.
Article by Margo McDonough
Photos by Danielle Quigley