BY KIM HUGHES –
As I drive around Mena, I see that one of my favorite spring-blooming trees is showing off its beautiful white and purple flowers. Some people call it a tulip tree, but it is really a Saucer Magnolia.
Every gardener is a bit of a gambler or they would never plant saucer magnolias. This beautiful tree blooms early and the risk of losing the flowers to a spring frost is great; but when they make it the payout is high. Saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana) is a slow growing, low-branched, deciduous tree capable of reaching 25 feet in height and width. In late winter, the fuzzy gray, pinky-sized buds expand rapidly and produce 5-inch diameter, cup-shaped blooms, usually with nine petals. The tulip shaped blossoms give rise to the common name, tulip tree. The outer surface of the petals are pinkish-purple while the inner surface is white. The Chinese have a wonderful name for these magnolias – Yingchunhua – which means “welcoming-spring flower.”
These large exposed buds tolerate midwinter temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but once the flower opens even the threat of a frost on the evening news turns the petals to mush. The flower buds have a short chilling requirement to break dormancy, something on the order of 600 hours. Temperatures around 40 degrees F (give or take 5 degrees) are logged by the dormant bud, and when the requisite number of chilling hours is met, the buds are ready to open with the first sunny day.
Initial hybrids first flowered in 1827. Today, about 50 selections are listed with many of them similar in appearance and garden performance.
Saucer magnolias are precocious bloomers and usually well-budded even as 5-foot tall specimens. Landscape uses include planting for dooryard specimens, as lawn specimens and mixed with other landscape plants in a flowering border.
Because they are relatively small at maturity, they can be planted close to the house or patio without fear of the coarse roots damaging the structure. They are slow growing, so give them the best advantage by planting in a fertile, well-drained garden soil that receives some supplemental watering during summer droughts.