Magnolias need more attention

KENNEWICK -- When homeowners want to plant a small spring-flowering tree in their yard, their thoughts tend to gravitate toward flowering dogwood, plum or cherry trees.

These are pretty trees, but in my opinion the hybrid magnolias are more worthy of their attention.

On the top of my list are the Loebner magnolias. It's likely you haven't heard a lot about them, but they are an awesome, extremely beautiful spring flowering tree. I tend to gravitate towards trees with fall color over trees with spring flowers, but the Loebner magnolias are an exception. They are a cross between Magnolia kobus (Kobus magnolia) and Magnolia stellata (star magnolia).

With one parent being shrubby in habit, these hybrids typically top out at a height of 20 to 30 feet and a width of 20 to 35 feet, a respectfully small tree for home landscapes. The large fragrant flowers open in early spring. Their flower color varies from rosy pink to white depending on the cultivar.

The leaves are deciduous and from 3 to 5 inches in length. Their yellow-brown fall color is unremarkable. As this small tree matures, the light gray bark and low, dense branching structure give the tree an attractive sculptural habit. The tree has a moderate rate of growth, forming a rounded to broadly rounded crown when it matures. It's hardy to USDA Zone 5.

My favorite cultivar of the Loebner magnolias is "Leonard Messel," a not so pretty name for a gorgeous tree. This was a chance hybrid raised by Colonel Messel in Sussex, England. The outside of the blooms are fuchsia to magenta and the inside of the flowers are pinkish white. Renowned woody plant expert Dr. Michael Dirr, says that "Leonard Messel" is "truly one of the great magnolias, lovely fragrance, cannot resist picking a flower and savoring the fragrance." A chance seedling from "Leonard Messel" with deeper flower color is called "Raspberry Fun."

Another common Loebner cultivar is "Merrill." It's a vigorous grower with a somewhat more upright habit. It's a profuse bloomer with fragrant large white flowers with a hint of pink produced in early spring. Other white-flowered cultivars include "Ballerina" with pure white flowers that are similar to those of the star magnolia and "Spring Snow" with creamy white flowers with a rounded outline that are produced a little later than the other Loebner magnolias.

While these magnolias would prefer a slightly acid soil, they seem to tolerate neutral to slightly alkaline soils without any trouble. They will flower best when planted in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. Protection from the wind is advised. They do best in a well drained soil that is kept moderately moist and not excessively wet or extremely dry. Mulch with several inches of bark to keep the shallow roots cool and protected.

If you have never seen one of these magnolias, plan a trip this weekend to the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden in Kennewick (1620 S. Union behind the Mid-Columbia Library.) You'll see a beautiful "Leonard Messel" near the Japanese Garden.

I'm planning to plant a "Leonard Messel" in my backyard as soon a I can find one.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension Office.