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Tree to 20 m, 0.35 m dbh. Branchlets glabrous, pale grey and waxy. Leaves evergreen, leathery, 20–35.5 × 10.5–13 cm, narrowly obovate, upper surface glossy green and glabrous, lower surface densely covered with white powdery dots, 17–26 secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins entire, apex acuminate; petiole 2.6–4 cm long; stipules adnate to the base of the petiole. Flowers terminal, large, pale red and fragrant; tepals 12, outer three thin, obovate to oblong, 9–11 cm long, inner tepals fleshy, obovate to spathulate, 8–12 cm long and with dark red lines in the upper portions; stamens red; gynoecium sessile with 90–110 carpels. Fruits pinkish purple, 10–16 cm long, oblong to ovoid; ripe carpels 3–4 cm long with a sharp, slightly recurved beak, dehiscing along both the dorsal and ventral sutures. Flowering May to June, fruiting October to November (China). Chen & Nooteboom 1993, Liu et al. 2004. Distribution CHINA: southwest Guangxi, southeast Yunnan. Habitat Evergreen broadleaved forest on limestone mountains between 800 and 1500 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 9. Conservation status Critically Endangered, due to habitat destruction. Illustration Chen & Nooteboom 1993, Liu et al. 2004.
Potentially a very grand plant indeed, Magnolia grandis is being assessed for its tolerances in western North America, with very limited material also being grown in Europe. The first introduction was made by Roger Warner in the mid-1980s, as seed obtained from a Chinese collector, and most if not all plants in cultivation derive from this source (K. Hughes, pers. comm. 2008). As always, the choice of site is extremely significant, shelter from both wind and sun, constant moisture and protection from frosts being important. Experiences in the Pacific Northwest suggest that it is able to tolerate short spells at about –8 or –9 °C, but –12 °C has killed young plants in Vancouver (Hogan 2008). When young and in a suitable site it can grow very rapidly indeed. One plant at Quarryhill accessioned in 1999 had achieved 6 m by 2004 (although sunburnt leaves, observed at this time, suggest that it is not in an ideal site), and Hogan (2008) records growth rates of up to 1.2 m per year at Camellia Mountain Botanical Garden in California. Both Sean Hogan and I (JMG), on first seeing the species, were struck by its similarity to a rubber plant Ficus elastica Roxb. ex Hornem., but unlike that ambivalent species (magnificent as a tree in appropriate climates, sad as a houseplant), the broad leaves of Magnolia grandis are complemented by the glaucous waxiness of the new shoots and the long pale red stipules peeling away as the leaves emerge. On first appearance, at least on the Quarryhill specimen observed, the leaves are bronzed, becoming dull mid-green with a slightly glaucous underside. The species is rare in Europe but there is a young tree of about 4 m at Tregrehan, again derived from Roger Warner’s introduction, imported to the United Kingdom in 1988 by Kevin Hughes (pers. comm. 2008). No tree has yet flowered in cultivation, but the large, deep pink flowers should be worth waiting for.