Tree to 20 m, 0.9 m dbh. Bark dull brown. Branchlets brown or purplish black with short appressed or spreading undulate or curly hairs. Leaves evergreen, papery or thin and leathery, (6–)11–24(–30) × (2.5–)3.5–6.5(–8.5) cm, elliptic, upper surface dark green and glabrous or with scattered undulate hairs particularly on the midrib, lower surface pale green with a dense covering of long brown or clear hairs, almost velvety, 11–23(–28) secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins entire, apex acute to acuminate; petiole 0.9–2.3 cm long and densely pubescent; stipules with dense pubescence on the outside, adnate to the petiole. Flowers solitary, on axillary shoots, yellowish white and very fragrant, brachyblast 0.4–1.7 cm long with three pubescent bracts; tepals 10–12(–13), spathulate to elliptic and clawed at the base, 2.2–5.5 cm long; gynoecium stipitate with ~35 densely pubescent carpels. Fruits 3.5–13 cm long and oblong; ripe carpels ovoid to ellipsoid, dull brown and densely lenticellate, 0.7–2.5 cm long. Flowering May to June, fruiting August to September (China). (Chen & Nooteboom 1993; Liu et al. 2004).
Distribution Bhutan China S Xizang, NW Yunnan India NE Nepal
Habitat Mixed forests, 1500–2300 m.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H3
Conservation status Data deficient (DD)
This Sino-Himalayan member of Section Michelia is, like so many others, a large forest tree. As a wild plant Rivers et al. (2016) assess its conservation status as Data Deficient, but there are reports of it being under serious threat from habitat loss, poor regeneration and over-exploitation in NE India, and locally extinct in parts of its Chinese range (Borah et al. 2021; Mir et al. 2016). Its specific epithet (from the Latin – ‘woolly’ or ‘downy’) relates to the velvety indumentum on the leaf undersurface, as does its commonly used but invalid synonym Magnolia velutina (‘velvety’). This adds to the attraction of the long, pointed leaves.
Magnolia lanuginosa is in cultivation in the western United States, Northern France and Cornwall, but has yet to make much impact, principally because it is rather slow to flower, reaching about 6 m before it does so in Oregon (S. Hogan, pers. comm. 2007). It seems to be related to M. maudiae, but the creamy flowers appear later in spring. There is a large plant which fruits freely at La Roche Fauconnière, Normandy (J. Garnett fide Williams 2022; C. Crock pers. comm. 2022). At Tregrehan, Cornwall, it is growing well from a collection by Keith Rushforth made at 2400 m in Bhutan in the early 1990s (KR 1784). It is ‘reasonably hardy’ there but initially seemed to be missing enough light to flower freely (Hudson 2004) – illustrating the difficulties in siting such trees, that need shelter but also good light. Now 15–20 m tall, it is no longer easy to tell whether this specimen of a rather small-flowered species has flowered in the upper, better-lit part of its crown (T. Hudson pers. comm. 2022). This neatly illustrates another drawback to the taller michelias as garden plants.