Evergreen shrub to 4 m. Branchlets green or greyish brown to purple, covered in red, brown, black or grey, appressed or spreading hairs; the hairs can also be found on the buds, stipules, petioles, brachyblasts and carpels. Leaves evergreen, leathery or membranous, 2–10 × 1–4 cm, obovate to elliptic, upper surface bright green with brown pubescence, lower surface greenish with dense or sparse pubescence initially, seven to nine secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins entire, apex acute to short-acuminate; petiole stout, 0.5–1 cm long and pubescent; stipular scar ⅔ to entire length of petiole. Flowers on axillary shoots, heavily scented, brachyblast 0.4–1.4 cm long with three bracts; tepals 6–12(–17), white, the outer three or four obovate to elliptic, constricted at the base and 2.2–3.5 cm long, the inner tepals oblong to spathulate and 2–2.2 cm long; stamens golden yellow; gynoecium stipitate with ≤15 carpels. Fruits 1–4.5 cm long and spicate; ripe carpels subglobose, dull brown, 0.7–1.4 cm long with a long beak and lenticels. Flowering March–April (China), April–May (England); fruiting August–September (China). Diploid 2n=38. (Xia, Liu & Nooteboom 2008; Chen & Nooteboom 1993; Liu et al. 2004).
Distribution China Guizhou, Sichuan, Xizang, Yunnan
Habitat Montane forest and thickets, 1100–2300 m.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H4
Conservation status Data deficient (DD)
Taxonomic note 1. The transfer of Michelia and other genera into Magnolia has led to various nomenclatural problems. Among these, Parakmeria yunnanensis became Magnolia yunnanensis first, leaving no room for Michelia yunnanensis to retain its specific epithet in the genus Magnolia. In consequence a new name was required and the epithet laevifolia – a synonym in Michelia for Michelia yunnanensis – was chosen by Figlar. Unfortunately the publication in Magnolia was originally deemed invalid; in consequence the name Magnolia dianica was coined and this has to some extent been adopted in the literature, but a closer look at the Botanical Code has since enabled the name laevifolia to be validated in Magnolia by Nooteboom, and this should now be used. 2. Magnolia amabilis (q.v.), differing in its stipular scar only 40–50% of the length of the petiole, its narrower leaves with 13–17 pairs of secondary veins, and tepals with acute to cuspidate apices, is often included here (for example by Flora of China (Xia, Liu & Nooteboom 2008) and Plants of the World Online (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2022)). We treat it as a distinct species on the advice of Richard Figlar (pers. comm. 2021) who has personal experience of the living plant.
Magnolia laevifolia, still often known as Michelia yunnanensis or Magnolia dianica, is one of the very best of the michelias for widespread garden use, thriving in milder parts of North America and in maritime Europe, especially the British Isles, Belgium and the Netherlands. The combination of white flowers (very prolific in the best forms) late enough in the spring to avoid frost, russet-hairy buds, and hardiness, along with a tendency to make an easily prunable shrub make it a winner for smaller gardens. It is among the finest introductions of the modern era, now getting the attention it deserves.
Described (as Michelia yunnanensis) in 1906, this south western Chinese species seems not to have reached Western gardens until the 1980s, although it is grown as an ornamental in China (Xia, Liu & Nooteboom 2008). The first known introduction was of seed from Kunming Botanical Garden, received by New Zealand nurseryman Glyn Church in 1986 (Church 2002) and it was in New Zealand that its garden potential was first realized. Material imported from there in the mid-1990s by Tom Hudson (pers. comm. 2008) was perhaps the first introduction to the United Kingdom. It is probable that it had been introduced earlier to the United States as M. crassipes, and seed lots from Kunming have also been received in North America (S. Hogan, pers. comm. 2008). There have been occasional wild collections as well, such as DJHC 27, from Aan Feng Yin, Yunnan in 1996.
Magnolia laevifolia is equally happy in full sun (including the hot hillsides of Quarryhill Botanic Garden, California) or shade, and seems to be lime-tolerant, Kevin Hughes (pers. comm. 2007) reporting a plant growing well on chalky soil in southern England without chlorosis. It is more often seen as a shrub than as a tree, although specimens of 8 m and more have been recorded in gardens in south west England (The Tree Register 2021). Pruning immediately after flowering in no way inhibits the following year’s flowering; indeed it is often recommended for flowering hedges, clipped over annually, in New Zealand. Used in perfume manufacture in China (Xia, Liu & Nooteboom 2008), the blooms are extremely fragrant and the scent will waft around the garden. However, not everyone can detect this, even some highly sensitive to other fragrant michelias such as M. doltsopa (pers. obs. 2021). Fruit is sometimes set quite prolifically and can be attractive in its own right.
It is variable in size and habit: some good selections been made, mostly in New Zealand and claiming dwarf habit, prolific flowering or large flowers. Remarkably, seedlings can flower in their second year (K. Hughes, pers. comm. 2008). Abbie and Mark Jury quip that ‘every man, woman and their dog in NZ has named a M. laevifolia selection (ourselves included)’ (pers. comm. 2021). We include here only a very few which are widespread outside New Zealand.
Compact (2 m height after 20 years claimed, although much faster growth is sometimes seen). Free-flowering; flowers cream, cup-shaped. Selected from seedlings raised from crosses between several accessions of M. laevifolia by Glyn Church, New Zealand, in the early 1990s. The most widely grown and marketed M. laevifolia cultivar in Europe.
Synonyms / alternative names
Magnolia laevifolia CHURCH MOUSE
Magnolia laevifolia MINI MOUSE
Magnolia laevifolia VANILLA PEARLS
A dwarf selection normally reaching little more than 1 m in height, 2 m after decades – ‘we think it’s the smallest Magnolia in the world’ (G. Church pers. comm. 2022); copious small flowers (Church 2021). Selected 2001 by Glyn Church, New Zealand from a cross between ‘Gail’s Favourite’ and an unnamed M. laevifolia made in 1980 (Justia Patents 2021). Distributed internationally, protected by New Zealand and European plant breeders’ rights, and by US Plant Patent 33478 granted 2021. It has a complex history of naming; there was some early distribution in New Zealand and Europe as ‘Mini Mouse’, a cultivar name already used for an Os Blumhardt M. liliiflora selection not described here (Lobdell 2021). Glyn Church confirms that the preferred selling names are CHURCH MOUSE in New Zealand and VANILLA PEARLS elsewhere (pers. comm. 2022). ‘Minnie Mouse’ (listed in the Register – Lobdell 2021) is apparently a misspelling of ‘Mini Mouse’ in Heerdegen & Eisenhut (2020); the plant has probably never been sold under that version of the name.
Compact habit; flowers large and numerous. Introduced by Cistus Nursery, OR before 2011.
Synonyms / alternative names
Magnolia laevifolia 'Velvet & Cream'
Flowers large, cup-shaped; a prolific seeder, from which many cultivars have been raised in New Zealand. Selected by New Zealand nurseryman Peter Cave before 2004, and distributed in New Zealand, Europe and North America (Jury & Jury 2021). It is usually seen listed as ‘Velvet & Cream’, but the ampersand is not permitted in cultivar names.