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Magnolias and other things in early bloom signal spring is here

Open flowers of the saucer magnolia are a signal that spring is here.
Open flowers of the saucer magnolia are a signal that spring is here. Mississpppi State University Photo

Lots of things vie for attention these days with some shrubs and trees, such as loropetalum, blooming many weeks ahead of schedule. But it is a joy to see them, and one can only hope that a deep freeeze doesn’t turn the blooms brown and our hearts sad. That sometimes happens in March, but, fingers crossed, not this year.

All this action on the early flower front generated a text from a friend last week, containing a photo of a plant and a question: “What is this?” She added that she wanted one right now, whatever it is.

It turned out to be a star magnolia, Magnolia stellata, a lovely plant that makes a rather large shrub, sometimes even a small tree. It is notable for the frilly flowers, white or pale pink, that emerge, usually in March, before the foliage.

But like other things, such as bridalwreath spiraea and forsythia, it came out early this year in the Piedmont and in much of the South, thanks to a warm February.

Slow-growing, star magnolia matures with a roundish shape, with a lot of twigs to create a dense, handsome shape. Some owners prune carefully the lower branches to give the effect of a small, multi-stemmed tree. Over a long time, it can reach about 12 feet high and 10 feet wide, though some newer named varieties grow taller.

Its companion in magnolia beauty is the saucer magnolia, also blooing now and a couple of weeks early. This is Magnolia soulangeana, which is an actual tree, rising to 20 feet or more. The flowers, also appearing ahead of the foliage, are white, pink or rosy-purple. I have one named Alexandrina, which has grown slowly into a very shapely, vertical tree over the past 35 years.

It makes a good choice for a smaller property where a larger shade tree would be out of scale and you want something different from dogwoods or redbuds.

Either of these would make a good choice for someone wanting a tree or shrub with late winter or early spring bloom. Howerver, these two really deserve some space to stand out. Rather than cluster them with other trees or large shrubs, give them a space to call their own so that their natural shape can be appreciated.

Some popular shrubs, such as forsythia and bridalwreath spirea, look excellent when arranged in numbers as an informal hedge or even against a wall. But these magnolias should have some open space around them for best effect. They deserve it.

These are not shade plants. Open sunshine is best for good growth and bloom. I have seen them in lawns and along streets where it is quite hot through the summer and they do fine. My Alexandrina magnolia is in a western exposure to the hot afternoon summer sun with no ill effects.

The chief ill effect for the saucer magnolia seems to be a biting deep freeze, which ruins the open flowers quickly. It has happened in the past and will happen again. But not this year, I hope.

Ask Nancy

Q. I did not prune away any of the plumes on my ornamental grasses this winter. Is it too late? Or too early?

A. You can do that now, in early spring. The plants will start growing soon, so try to get this done as soon as possible.