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Tree to 28 m, 0.5 m dbh. Branchlets black-brown with ferruginous pubescence and numerous annular stipule scars. Leaves evergreen, thin and leathery, 12.3–19.6 × 4.3–6.4 cm, elliptic to narrowly obovate, upper surface dark glossy green and glabrous, lower surface pale green to glaucous and glabrous, or with appressed brown hairs when young, 12–14(–17) secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins entire, apex acute to acuminate; petiole 1–1.5 cm long and pubescent; stipules pubescent, adnate to the base of the petiole. Flowers terminal, peduncle curved outwards or pendulous; tepals 9–11, the outer three obovate and leathery, 3.5 × 2.4 cm and yellowish green or green, inner tepals spathulate and fleshy, 2.8 × 1.4 cm and yellowish with a hint of purple at the base; stamens pinkish red; gynoecium sessile with 20–28 carpels, glabrous. Fruits 3.2–5.4 cm long and globose to ovoid; carpels elliptic, 1.6–2.2 cm long, and dehiscing along the dorsal suture or both the dorsal and ventral sutures. Flowering May to June, fruiting September to October (China). Chen & Nooteboom 1993. Distribution CHINA: Yunnan; VIETNAM. Habitat Mixed evergreen forest between 500 and 1700 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 7b. Conservation status Magnolia ovoidea (H.T. Chang & B.L. Chen) V.S. Kumar (treated as a distinct species) is Critically Endangered (IUCN), fewer than 50 individuals surviving in the wild. Magnolia conifera and var. chingii have not been evaluated. Illustration Chen & Nooteboom 1993. Taxonomic note There has been much confusion over the identity of this species and the related Manglietia chingii Dandy. Kumar (2006) recognises the latter as Magnolia conifera var. chingii (Dandy) V.S. Kumar, with a more easterly distribution in Guangdong and Guangxi. This variety can be distinguished from typical M. conifera by its longer petiole (2–3 cm), longer stamens (1.5–2 cm vs. ~1 cm), and elliptic outer tepals. Dick Figlar (pers. comm. 2006) believes that most plants in cultivation under the name M. conifera are actually var. chingii.
The taxonomic deliberations discussed above are not helped by a general confusion in cultivated plants as to the identity of plants labelled either Magnolia/Manglietia conifera or chingii. Sean Hogan (pers. comm. 2007) has found that successive batches of seed sent from Nanjing Botanic Garden as Manglietia chingii have given rise to a ‘congested’ form of Magnolia insignis, recognisable by its naked leaf buds at the tips of the shoots. On the other hand, seed distributed from the Kunming Botanical Institute as Manglietia ovoidea has been correct for the broader species Magnolia conifera, with long-petiolate, elongated leaves and pendulous flowers. This confusion does not help assessments of garden performance, but a plant sold as M. conifera has survived for three winters for Thomas Methuen-Campbell at Penrice Castle in South Wales, and M. conifera var. chingii is doing well for Mike Robinson in East Sussex (Robinson et al. 2008). In Oregon plants grown as Manglietia ovoidea have long narrow leaves that emerge ‘a pleasing shell-pink’ (Hogan 2008). The leaves of Magnolia conifera are thick and a shiny dark green, reminiscent of those of M. grandiflora, while the pendulous white flower with its deep red stamens suggests M. sieboldii (Figlar 2008).