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Tree to 16 m, 0.5 m dbh. Bark dark grey. Branchlets dull brown with long brown or rufous hairs. Leaves evergreen, leathery and somewhat rigid, (14–)18–24(–29) × 7–10(–12) cm, obovate to elliptic, upper surface dark green with scattered pubescence, lower surface glaucous with long brown or rufous hairs or glabrous, 12–14 secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins slightly revolute, apex acute to short-acuminate; petiole 2.7–4 cm long and pubescent; stipules with long silky hairs outside, leathery and free from the petiole. Flowers large, on axillary shoots, fragrant, initially white, but turning pale yellow, brachyblast 2–2.2 cm long with two to three tomentose bracts; tepals 12–13, fleshy, obovate to elliptic and 4.4–5.3 cm long, the inner tepals slightly smaller than the outer three; stamens yellowish brown; gynoecium stipitate with ~152 pubescent carpels. Fruits spicate; ripe carpels ovoid, woody, 1–1.5 cm, short-beaked. Flowering April, fruiting September to October (China). Chen & Nooteboom 1993, Liu et al. 2004. Distribution CHINA: Yunnan. Habitat Forests on limestone between 1690 and 1950 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 9b. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration Chen & Nooteboom 1993.
Var. fulva is apparently rare in cultivation. A young plant at Quarryhill, grown from Yunnanese seed in 1999, seems to be this taxon, as a juvenile, but maturity will tell.
Michelia calcicola C.Y. Wu ex Y.W. Law & Y.F. Wu
Var. calcicola forms a small tree 3–8 m tall. The branchlets are covered in thick, yellow woolly tomentum and the leaves are 13–18 × 4.5–7 cm. Stipules are free from the petiole. The flowers are yellow with nine tepals and glabrous carpels, appearing in mid- to late spring. Liu et al. 2004. Distribution CHINA: Guangxi, Yunnan. Habitat Broadleaved forests between 590 and 1500 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 8b. Conservation status Not evaluated, but Magnolia ingrata (see Taxonomic note below) is considered Endangered. Illustration Liu et al. 2004. Taxonomic note This variety is treated as a distinct species by Liu et al. (2004), and as a synonym of the very poorly known Michelia ingrata B.L. Chen & S.C. Yang by Chen & Nooteboom (1993). The latter (now Magnolia ingrata (B.L. Chen & S.C. Yang) Figlar) is regarded as a full species by Liu et al. (2004) but Dick Figlar (pers. comm. 2007) advises us that it and M. fulva var. calcicola are probably synonymous.
This taxon, whatever its correct nomenclature, is an exciting plant that will need further observation to ascertain its garden merits, but on early acquaintance seems to promise something special. It combines rather glaucous leaves with golden indumentum and yellow flowers, which have been produced in its fifth year from seed. At first the growth is rather inelegant and sparse, but older specimens begin to thicken up (Hogan 2008). Although it has survived –7°C in Portland as young plants, its ultimate hardiness is not known, but as it comes from further north than var. fulva it is likely to be somewhat more hardy (R. Figlar, pers. comm. 2007). Young plants are in cultivation at Tregrehan but have not yet been planted outside (T. Hudson, pers. comm. 2007).
Some confusion has arisen over the erroneous use in Kunming Botanical Garden and in literature (for example, in Hunt 1998) of the name Michelia xanthantha for this plant. Dick Figlar writes (pers. comm 2007): ‘The true Magnolia xanthantha (C.Y. Wu ex Y.W. Law) Figlar has glabrous leaves and buds with yellowish flowers of only six tepals. This is different from the very hairy leaves, buds, and stems of M. fulva var. calcicola, which also has nine-tepalled flowers. Sima Yongkang has not been able to find a living plant of the M. xanthantha but he believes that it probably belongs with M. martinii whose description it closely resembles. Whatever it is, it is not in cultivation outside of China, and may not even be in cultivation there!’