What woody plant has a graceful, open frame covered in furry buds that make you want to stroke them, that open up in to starry white flowers? Magnolia stellata – the star magnolia. It’s a beautiful plant that can grow into a shrub of around 2½ - 3m high. In spring, Wisley is covered with fantastic specimens of these marvellous plants.
From the moment you enter the garden you’ll be in the presence of magnolias. There are about 125 species and countless cultivars of these deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs. They rank as one of the most ancient flowering plants - there are fossil remains of their flowers dating back 100 million years, alongside fossilised beetles which are their major pollinators also found in abundance from that period. They were definitely around in the time of the dinosaurs!
Magnolia stellata holds a place in the heart of many gardeners at Wisley – not least because our former Curator and Executive Vice President Jim Gardiner is an authority on them, and planted many here during his tenure. His enthusiasm was infectious!
Throughout winter the silky, furry flower buds are there waiting, and burst into bloom about now. The timing varies slightly but this year the first flower emerged on 28th February. And there are hundreds of buds to ensure that throughout March this beauty will be covered in white flowers with 12 or so thin petals reaching 12cm (5in) across.
When in full bloom, the starry flowers give a real sense of spring in the garden. It’s joyful - how do they do it? The multi-stemmed nature of the plant means the flowers are borne all over. Some cultivars, such as ‘Jane Platt’ have flowers with a pale pink hue. Others, like ‘Royal Star’ are similar but larger than the species – just think of all the extra flower coverage! This species is happy in alkaline soil, sun or partial shade, so whether it’s in a woodland, or out on its own, it’ll work well with a mixed ground cover to make spring the prettiest season of the year. At Wisley take a look around the Wild Garden and Battleston Hill for inspiration.
Check out the Wisley Plant Centre for a range of Magnolia stellata options, and enjoy this starry spectacle at home.
RHS Advice: Magnolias