Garden Spot

Man's love of magnolias runs deep

CorrespondentDecember 28, 2012 

  • 5 magnolia tips Tom Krenitsky offers this advice to would-be magnolia growers: • Don’t start off with the early bloomers. Some years their flowers will be ruined by late frosts. • Plant where the soil is fertile and moist. “Magnolias generally prefer acidic soil (around pH 6),” Krenitsky says. “Mine is very acidic (pH 4.1), so I incorporate some dolomitic lime – especially when I am planting Magnolia grandiflora (Southern evergreen magnolia). If the site is too wet, plant on a mound. If too dry, plant in a depression.” • Don’t plant in late fall or winter. In North Carolina, the best times to plant are August and the first half of September and then again in spring when they are blooming. • Keep plant well-watered the first year after planting. • Keep the plant mulched, but to avoid disease and problems with insects, don’t pile the mulch against the trunk. Debra Boyette
  • More information Magnolia mania A magnolia study day that includes a tour of Tom Krenitsky’s private garden is on tap in late March at JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. Details will be set in January and advance registration will be required. The event will include presentations by magnolia experts, as well as tours of Krenitsky’s garden and other magnolia collections, including that at Raulston. For information, call Chris Glenn at 919-513-7055 or send email to chris_glenn@ncsu.edu. Details will be posted at ncsu.edu/jcraulstonarboretum when complete.

Tom Krenitsky has learned a lot about magnolias in the last 20 years. Sometimes, however, what he doesn’t know has him on pins and needles. The semiretired pharmaceutical researcher calls himself a magnoliaphile – a lover of magnolias. “I must confess that I am passionate about them,” he says in his book “Planting for Posterity” (The Fields Press, 2010, 118 pages).

He grows magnolias – hundreds of them, ranging from small shrubs to huge trees – on 83 acres in northwest Chatham County near Chapel Hill. Krenitsky, 74, comes from a family of gardeners, and his own interest dates back to childhood. That interest grew when he moved from New York to the Triangle in 1970 for his job with Burroughs Wellcome. He became fascinated by the variety of plants he could grow in his new, warmer home.

Through mutual friends he met J.C. Raulston, the horticulturist who founded the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. Raulston sparked his interest in magnolias: “His enthusiasm was very contagious.” Magnolias are both scientifically and aesthetically interesting, Krenitsky says. They were on the planet along with the dinosaurs; they are very diverse (leaves are evergreen and deciduous, large and small, shiny and matte, and flowers range from pure reds through purple, yellows, creams, brown and pink); and they are very beautiful. Through selection and hybridization, man has been able to produce smaller sizes for use in small gardens, more and bigger flowers, and plants that are adaptable to different soils and climates.

“Many new species are being introduced to this country from Asia, Central and South America. In addition, the number of new hybrids has increased markedly over the last two decades. The USA has been a major contributor to these advances,” Krenitsky says.

He grows 30 to 40 species and hundreds of magnolia hybrids in his garden. Some are planted singly; others are in groups. The precocious bloomers, whose flowers appear before the leaves come out, look good when planted against the dark background of red cedars, he says. The winter-blooming saucer magnolia is an example.The most widely planted magnolia in the world is the classic Southern magnolia, M. grandiflora, with its large, fragrant, white flowers and dark green evergreen leaves that are shiny and smooth on top.

Krenitsky has had some great surprises and some disappointments while growing magnolias. One tree planted from seed took 19 years to bloom. He is waiting now to see the results of crossing a rare magnolia from northern Mexico with a Southern magnolia. His goal is to create an evergreen magnolia that boasts the bluish-tinted leaves of the Mexican parent and the bigger, more fragrant flowers from the Southern magnolia.That’s why he’s on pins and needles. It could be years before he knows whether he has produced a true hybrid. He carefully collected pollen from a male plant and put it on the female plant. He collected the seeds that resulted, stored them in the refrigerator over the winter, and that spring planted them in pots. He now has seedlings, but you never know when a bee has come in and messed you up, he says.

When the seedlings reach blooming age, which could be in two years or 20, he’ll know whether his work was successful. The structure of the flowers will tell the tale. If he thinks the plant has horticultural potential, he’ll see if a nursery is interested in propagating and offering it for sale.

“Of course,” he says, “I also share certain plans with my gardening friends.”

Boyette: debragardens@gmail.com

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