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Shrub or small tree to 12 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; stipules adnate along almost the whole length of the petiole, pubescent outside. Flowers on axillary shoots, yellowish or greenish white and heavily scented, brachyblast 0.4–1.4 cm long with three bracts; tepals 6–12(–17), 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 to April, fruiting August to September (China). Chen & Nooteboom 1993, Liu et al. 2004. Distribution CHINA: Guizhou, Sichuan, Yunnan. Habitat Montane forest and thickets between 1100 and 2300 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 7a. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration Liu et al. 2004; NT10, NT475, NT477, NT495. Taxonomic note 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.
Magnolia laevifolia, still often known as Michelia yunnanensis or Magnolia dianica, is one of the very best of the michelias for widespread garden use, with plants thriving on both sides of North America and in maritime Europe, including in gardens in Belgium and the Netherlands: Koen Camelbeke (pers. comm. 2007) reports seeing it flowering spectacularly in the garden of Wim Rutten in Leende, the Netherlands. It seems to have reached gardens as Michelia yunnanensis in the 1980s, the first known introduction being as seed from Kunming Botanical Garden, received by Glyn Church in New Zealand in 1986 (Church 2002). Material imported from New Zealand in the mid-1990s by Tom Hudson (pers. comm. 2008) was probably 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. It is more often seen as a shrub than as a tree, forming a wide bush of dark green foliage often spangled with its white flowers emerging from russet buds as it repeat-flowers through the season. The blooms are extremely fragrant and the scent will waft around the garden. Fruit is usually set rather prolifically and can be quite attractive in its own right. Magnolia laevifolia is equally happy in full sun (including the hot hillsides of Quarryhill) 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. A young plant growing on in a pot at Colesbourne and irrigated only with water from the limestone aquifer shows no sign of chlorosis after two years. It is variable in size and habit and some good selections are being made, including the broad-tepalled clone ‘Velvet and Cream’ from New Zealand. Forms with pink in the flower are also being developed there (T. Hudson, pers. comm. 2007). In Europe a clone has been illegitimately named ‘Summer Snowflake’ (this is a vernacular name for Leucojum aestivum and not available as a cultivar name), and in the United States Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery, North Carolina has named a particularly floriferous clone ‘Michelle’, for his wife. Remarkably, seedlings can flower in their second year (K. Hughes, pers. comm. 2008).