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Tree to 35 m, 1.5 m dbh. Bark smooth, grey. Branchlets pale green with short, appressed grey or brown hairs, or largely glabrous. Leaves evergreen, fragrant when crushed, thin and leathery, 17–22.5 × 6–9.4 cm, narrowly obovate, both surfaces glabrous with prominent reticulate venation, 9–16 secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins entire, apex mucronate or acuminate; petiole 2.7–3.5 cm long, glabrous, narrowing towards base; stipules adnate to petiole, densely covered with long, yellowish hairs. Flowers terminal, white, fragrant; tepals 12, obovate, 6–8 × 2.5 cm; gynoecium sessile with 29–39 carpels. Fruits 8–8.5 cm long, subglobose to ovoid; ripe carpels red, shiny, later thick and woody, 1–2.5 cm long, dehiscing along both dorsal and ventral sutures. Flowering May to June, fruiting September to October (China). Chen & Nooteboom 1993, Liu et al. 2004. Distribution CHINA: Guangxi, Guizhou, southeast Yunnan; VIETNAM. Habitat Mixed forest on limestone hills between 1300 and 1900 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 9–10. Conservation status Endangered, due to habitat loss and firewood extraction. Illustration Chen & Nooteboom 1993, Liu et al. 2004; NT480.
Seed labelled Magnolia aromatica was sent to Cistus Nursery from the Kunming Botanical Institute during the 1990s and young plants have been distributed from the nursery under this name. Unfortunately it seems that some of these at least have not been the true species but possibly hybrids, or even another taxon altogether (S. Hogan, pers. comm. 2007). One such was planted in the David C. Lam Asian Garden in Vancouver and has done extremely well, reaching 5.5 m and tolerating frosts to –9 °C, but on flowering the hairs on the bud scales were found to be reddish instead of the expected white, and the tree has since been assigned to a taxon near M. conifera (Wharton 2007). Individuals from this source should therefore be observed carefully as they come into flower. There are specimens at Quarryhill forming sparse, upright young trees but these have not yet flowered. Their leaves are bronzed when young and are very aromatic when crushed, with a hint of mango. Authorities differ in the amount of pubescence M. aromatica should show: Liu et al. (2004) say that it should be glabrous except for white-hairy buds, but other authorities (Chen & Nooteboom 1993) allow it to have hairy twigs. The Quarryhill trees have fulvous pubescence on the twigs. It is therefore not clear whether true M. aromatica is in cultivation, and to ascertain this it will be necessary for more trees to flower. The true species is likely to be on the tender side as it has a southern distribution.