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Tree to 40 m, 1 m dbh. Branchlets stout and blackish brown, densely covered with long curly or undulate dark brown or rufous hairs. Leaves evergreen, often in clusters of four to five at branch tips, thin and leathery, 23–40 × 9.4–17 cm, obovate, upper surface dark green and glabrous, lower surface pale green with scattered dark brown curly or undulate hairs, 20–22 veins on each side of the midrib, margins entire, apex acute to short-acuminate; petiole 1.5–3.7 cm long and densely pubescent; stipules adnate to the base of the petiole and densely pubescent. Flowers large and terminal, pale green to white and fragrant; tepals 9–12, the outer three obovate to oblong, 4.5–5 × 2.5 cm, the inner tepals narrower; stamens purplish red; gynoecium sessile with 57–65 carpels. Fruits 6.5–11 cm long, purplish red and globose to ovoid or oblong; ripe carpels, 2.5–3 cm long with a sharp beak, dehiscing along both the dorsal and ventral sutures. Flowering April to June, fruiting September to October (China). Chen & Nooteboom 1993, Liu et al. 2004. Distribution CHINA: Guangxi, Yunnan. Habitat Evergreen broadleaved forest between 800 and 1500 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 9. Conservation status Critically Endangered, due to habitat loss and firewood extraction. Illustration Chen & Nooteboom 1993, Liu et al. 2004.
The glory of Magnolia megaphylla surely lies in the sumptuous russet pubescence of its shoots and on the underside of its huge leaves, velvety to the touch. The leaves, being up to 45 cm long on vigorous young plants, are striking in themselves and flush bronze: perhaps with tongue slightly in cheek, Sean Hogan (2008) suggests using it as a herbaceous plant, for the vigorous new shoots and huge new leaves that a coppiced stump will produce. When not so treated it can form a dense-crowned tree, although conditions need to be perfect for this to occur. Despite their size the leaves are rather thin, and scorch very easily, as seen at Quarryhill where it is planted on an open hillside. Critical requirements seem to be high humidity and constant moisture, together with some shelter from both sun and wind, at least when young – all pointing to this being a plant accustomed to spending its juvenile years in forest understorey. Frost-sensitivity seems to depend on location, with summer heat being implicated in assisting winter-hardiness: a tree in the Atlanta Botanic Garden, Georgia was not damaged by –10 to –11 °C in 2003, but –12 °C has killed trees in both North Carolina and British Columbia (Hogan 2008). It should clearly not be risked in areas where it would normally experience anything more than light frost. No trees are known to have flowered in cultivation yet, but as the flowers are comparatively small and held high in the canopy of mature trees this is not a significant disadvantage.