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Tree to 30 m, 1.5 m dbh. Bark smooth and greyish brown. Branchlets glabrous and yellowish brown. Leaves evergreen, thin and leathery, 8–16(–20) × 2.5–5.4(–7) cm, narrowly obovate to elliptic, both surfaces glabrous, or with minute hairs below, 8–12(–17) secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins entire, apex caudate-acuminate; petiole 1.4–4.2 cm long; stipules covered with ferruginous hairs, adnate to the base of the petiole. Flowers terminal, pure white and fragrant; tepals nine, concave, obovate to elliptic, 5.5–7 × 2.5–4 cm, outer three tepals slightly larger, 6–7 × 3–4 cm; stamens pinkish red; gynoecium sessile with (12–)24–36 carpels, glabrous. Fruits pinkish purple, 2.5–6 cm long, ovoid; ripe carpels 1.3–1.7 cm long, and dehiscing along both the dorsal and ventral sutures. Flowering April to May, fruiting August to October (China). Chen & Noote boom 1993, Liu et al. 2004. Distribution CHINA: Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hainan, Hong Kong, Hunan, Jiangxi, Yunnan; VIETNAM. Habitat Subtropical evergreen broadleaved forest between 500 and 1300 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 6b–7a. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration Liu et al. 2004. Taxonomic note Three additional varieties exist within the M. fordiana complex: var. calcarea (X.H. Song) V.S. Kumar with glabrous branchlets and leaves, and narrowly elliptic carpels (Guizhou); var. forrestii (W.W. Sm. ex Dandy) V.S. Kumar with brown pubescence on the branchlets, stipules, leaf undersides and petioles, and larger leaves, 24.5 × 9.6 cm (Guangxi, Yunnan; Myanmar); and var. kwangtungensis (Merr.) V.S. Kumar with rufous indumentum, and smaller flowers with many more (44–49) carpels (Guangdong, Guangxi). See also Magnolia yuyuanensis.
Notes made on different coasts of the United States, two years apart, both compare Magnolia fordiana to a Ficus (of the F. elastica persuasion), on account of its glossy, broad, leathery leaves. The two trees observed were at Quarryhill (2.5 m in 2004) and the US National Arboretum (4 m in 2006) but both shared the same strictly upright stems and short spreading branches that give young trees a conical shape. Growth can be rapid, the Quarryhill tree putting on 75 cm in a year (W. McNamara, pers. comm. 2004), but specimens grown in Vancouver from a collection made by Peter Bristol, Lawrence Lee and Peter Wharton in 1988 in southern Anhui province have not performed very well, being apt to be chlorotic and of unattractive shape. Their branches are also prone to break under the weight of snow (Wharton 2007). Magnolia fordiana seems to be able to tolerate cold to about –6 °C (S. Hogan, pers. comm. 2007). It is still scarce in the United Kingdom but young plants are growing at Tregrehan. Dick Figlar (pers. comm. 2007) cautions that many plants in cultivation labelled M. fordiana are probably the very closely related M. yuyuanensis (see p. 504).