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A widely branched evergreen tree or shrub 20 to 30 (occasionally over 40) ft high; young shoots glabrous. Leaves of leathery texture, oval, oblong or inclined to ovate, shortly pointed, broadly wedge-shaped or sometimes rounded at the base, 21⁄4 to 41⁄2 in. long, 1 to 2 in. wide, reddish bronze when young, becoming dark shining green above, paler beneath, perfectly glabrous; stalk 1⁄2 to 1 in. long. Flowers fragrant, creamy white, 2 to 3 in. wide; tepals nine or twelve, oblanceolate to narrowly obovate, 2 in. long, 1⁄2 to 5⁄8 in. wide; sepals three, narrower. Fruits 2 to 3 in. long, 11⁄4 in. wide, composed of fifteen to twenty carpels, each containing one or two bright orange-red seeds. Bot. Mag., n.s., t. 16.
Native of Yunnan, China, and S.E. Tibet, at altitudes of 9,000 to 12,000 ft discovered by G. Forrest in 1917; plants raised from seed he collected later are in cultivation at Kew and elsewhere. The leaves are very much smaller than, but have some resemblance to, those of M. grandiflora; they do not at all resemble those of M. delavayi, the third and only other evergreen species in cultivation. Forrest found M. nitida flowering in June and he remarks that it is strongly aromatic when in fruit. Writing after a severe frost at Caerhays in Cornwall, in March 1931, J. C. Williams described its foliage as by far the most brilliant to be seen there and absolutely without a trace of injury. It is not hardy at Kew and is very rare in gardens. There are three examples at Caerhays, Cornwall, the largest 33 × 23⁄4 ft (1971). Another grows at Trewithen, Cornwall, and it was this tree (raised from F.26509) that provided the flowering spray figured in the Botanical Magazine.
With its bronze young growths and its polished leaves, M. nitida is, in foliage, the finest magnolia cultivated in Britain; indeed, Mr Johnstone considered it to be in that respect the most beautiful of all evergreen trees known to him. But it must be stressed that it is hardy only in the mildest parts.
The specimen at Caerhays, Cornwall, measures 40 × 31⁄2 ft (1984).