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Tree to 12 m, 1 m dbh; single- or multistemmed. Bark smooth and pale grey. Branchlets slender, greyish green and glabrous. Leaves deciduous, papery, 10–22 × 3.5–11 cm, ovate to elliptic or rarely oblanceolate, upper surface dull green, lower surface pale green with long, colourless hairs along the midrib and veins, 10–15 secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins entire, apex acute to acuminate; petiole 1–2 cm long; stipules adnate to the base of the petiole and densely covered with short white or yellowish hairs. Flowers terminal and produced before the leaves, white with a pinkish purple centre and fragrant; tepals 9(–12), the outer three linear and 0.8–1.1 cm long, the inner six spathulate and 4–5 × 1.3–2.5 cm; stamens purple; gynoecium sessile. Fruits 6–14.5 cm long, purplish red, cylindrical though some carpels may abort causing the fruit to be contorted; ripe carpels pale brown or black, globose, tuberculate and 0.9–1 cm long, dehiscing along the dorsal sutures. Flowering February to March, fruiting September (China). Chen & Nooteboom 1993, Gardiner 2000, Liu et al. 2004. Distribution CHINA: Gansu, Henan, Hubei, Shaanxi, Sichuan. Habitat Forest between 400 and 2000 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 5. Conservation status Data Deficient. Illustration Liu et al. 2004; NT481. Cross-references S327, K268.
The Chinese name for Magnolia biondii is Hope of Spring (Forestfarm Nursery catalogue 2007), which expresses a sentiment many feel as they see magnolia buds swelling. Unfortunately the flowers of M. biondii are rather small and are not produced by young trees, so there are those who feel that this species is of limited horticul tural value (J. Gallagher, pers. comm. 2007). The opening flowers are said to be able to withstand light frosts, and although they are typically white with dark purple-pink basal staining, can vary from cream to purple (Gardiner 2000). Wilson failed to introduce it, so this honour goes to Prof. Y.C. Ting of Boston College, Massachusetts, who collected seed from Henan in 1977. This was distributed to the Arnold Arboretum and the Magnolia Society, with the result that the species rapidly became established in cultivation throughout the United States and beyond (Spongberg 1998). The first flowering occurred in 1986 in North Carolina; the Arnold Arboretum specimens took until 1991, however, and John Gallagher (pers. comm. 2007) has grown it for twelve years without a flower. Once flowering has started the trees may sometimes produce a second flush, to judge from the secondary buds seen on a 7 m specimen at the JC Raulston Arboretum in May 2006. The narrow leaves give the tree a light and graceful appearance in summer.
Seed imported from Henan in 1996 and distributed though the Magnolia Society International seedlist (1996 #5) has proved to be a mixed batch, including hybrids with nine equal tepals, but some of the plants raised from this source do have the correct six large and three sepaloid tepals (P. de Spoelberch, pers. comm. 2007). At Arboretum Wespelaar and Herkenrode there are vigorous upright trees that flower in February or March; the small flowers are judged by Philippe de Spoelberch to be ‘of botanical interest only’, though their early appearance and fragrance are welcome.