Saucer magnolia blooms herald arrival of spring

Saucer magnolia is considered a small tree and can be pruned after flowering to control its size.
Saucer magnolia is considered a small tree and can be pruned after flowering to control its size. MSU Extension Service

Saucer magnolias and other flowering, deciduous magnolias start to peek out of their buds every spring, usually in late February or early March. The rush of colorful pinks is always a welcome sight.

So, imagine my surprise when the saucer magnolia at the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi exploded into bloom three weeks early in mid-January.

In my opinion, saucer magnolias are, by far, the most popular of the deciduous, flowering magnolias.

The saucer magnolia, which dates back to the 1820s, is a cross between the white-flowered Magnolia denudata and the purple-flowered Magnolia lillflora.

According to legend, the saucer magnolia was developed to bring beauty back to the European landscape after the Napoleonic Wars. One of Napoleon’s retired soldiers is credited with wanting to do something to help repair the damage to the land caused by the wars.

The saucer magnolia is considered a small tree, and it looks best when trained to a broad, multistem architecture. It typically grows to be about 20 feet tall and wide, but specimens in old, established landscapes are commonly much larger.

If this small tree starts to get out of hand, prune to control its size. The best time to prune is immediately after the tree flowers in the spring. But I really like specimens that are allowed to grow to their natural potential.

Since the trees bloom before the leaves emerge, the flowers are the main attraction. They are huge — up to 10 inches across. The colors can be white, pink or bold purple, depending on the variety. There are many selections and cultivars to choose from, and deciding on only one can be difficult.

Leaves vary depending on the selection. They can have an elliptical shape and reach up to 8 inches long. The leaves add textural interest to the summer landscape but have little fall color interest.

Saucer magnolias are a good choice for the gardener who wants a low-maintenance plant, as these trees have no serious disease or pest problems. Plant them in full sun in well-drained soil.

While this tree is somewhat drought tolerant, make sure the soil doesn’t dry out completely, as drought causes the saucer magnolia to drop its leaves prematurely. Flowers buds don’t develop as well during dry conditions, so water your saucer magnolias deeply a few times during drought stress to help ensure a beautiful spring next year.

Your early spring or late-winter garden can resemble a painting when the saucer magnolias begin to bloom. A fantastic early spring blooming partner is the flowering quince. I like to think of the saucer magnolia flowering as an early spring season extension, as the trees start blooming before our beloved azaleas.

The blooms of the saucer magnolia are among the first signals to me that winter is coming to an end, and we can commence planting for the spring. But this year, I think I’m going to be a little more cautious and hold off planting my tomatoes until later in the season.

Gary Bachman is a professor of horticulture at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi.