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A deciduous tree 20 to 50 ft high, with an open, spreading head of branches, and a trunk 1 to 11⁄2 ft in diameter. Leaves the largest of all magnolias, measuring 15 to 25 in., sometimes 3 ft in length, and from 7 to 12 in. wide, oblong-obovate, widest above the middle, bluntish at the apex, broadly heart-shaped or auriculate at the base, bright green and glabrous above, silvery grey and downy beneath. Flowers on leafy shoots 8 to 10, sometimes 14 in. across, fragrant; petals six, dull creamy white, fleshy, 5 to 7 in. long, half as wide. Fruits roundish, egg-shaped, rose-coloured, 3 in. long. Bot. Mag., t. 2189.
Native of the south-eastern United States, where it is rare, and only occurs in small isolated stations. It was discovered by the elder Michaux in 1759 in the mountains of S. Carolina; introduced to Europe in 1800. In foliage this is the most remarkable of magnolias; and is indeed one of the most interesting of the world’s trees; but it is, unfortunately, spring tender in a young state. That it will withstand severer frosts than any we experience is shown by two healthy trees growing in front of the museum of the Arnold Arboretum, Boston, USA. The most famous specimen in England was at Claremont, near Esher, a healthy tree which, in 1912, was 40 ft high, its trunk 3 ft in girth. This no longer exists.
The largest specimens recorded recently are: Savill Gardens, Windsor Great Park, 30 × 11⁄2 ft, (1967); Exbury, Hants, 30 × 21⁄4 ft (1968); Bodnant, Denbigh, 20 × 2 ft (1966). There are also examples about 25 ft high at Tittenhurst Park, Berks, and Nymans, Sussex.
specimens: Savill Garden, Windsor Great Park, 40 × 21⁄4 ft (1984); Nymans, Sussex, 30 × 2 ft (1977); Sheffield Park, Sussex, 36 × 13⁄4 ft (1984); Killerton, Devon, 59 × 31⁄4 ft (1983); Holker Park, Cumb., 30 × 21⁄4 ft (1983); Bodnant, Gwyn., 30 × 21⁄2 ft (1974).
[M. ashei]. – This now ranks as a subspecies of M. macrophylla – subsp. ashei (Weatherby) Spongberg.
† M. dealbata Zucc. – A rare native of Mexico, in the cloud-forests of Oaxaca and Veracruz, north to Hidalgo, very closely allied to M. macrophylla. Plants of this species have been raised by James Russell at Castle Howard, Yorkshire, from seed which he collected in Veracruz in 1983. He first saw it growing in the Jalapa area near the village of Coyopola around 4,800 ft altitude, in the company of oaks, liquidambar and Clethra xalapensis, and collected six seeds. He later saw about 100 trees, only four of them fruiting, of upright, almost fastigiate habit, to about 60 ft high; leaves 12-15 in. long, 7-8 in. wide, deciduous, fresh green above, silvery green beneath (field-notes, under JR 413).
Magnolia macrophylla var. macrophylla and var. ashei were described by Bean (B657) and Krüssmann (K267, K272).
Magnolia dealbata Zucc.
The splendid big leaves and creamy flowers of typical Magnolia macrophylla are also found in its var. dealbata, which has the additional advantages of being easier to grow and quicker to come into flower than its more northerly counterpart. It has therefore been recommended for gardens – in Cornwall at least (Hudson 2004), although it seems probable that the same qualities will be demonstrated in other localities as well. The physical differences between the varieties are slight, however, and it is not always easy to distinguish them on morphological characters alone (N. Macer, pers. comm. 2007). The leaves of var. dealbata are slightly more succulent than those of var. macrophylla and are somewhat glaucous below; they also persist on the trees longer in the autumn, especially where the climate is mild (S. Hogan, pers. comm. 2007). A grove of trees approaching 10 m tall at Berkeley, from a collection made by G. Pattison in 1985, only lose their leaves in colder weather, and have survived a freeze of –10.5 °C there (S. Hogan, pers. comm. 2007). There are some fine trees in the United Kingdom as well, most notably the 13 m champion planted in 1980 at Chyverton, Cornwall, and a 7 m tree at Caerhays Castle (TROBI), but it does require a sheltered and relatively calm situation, as wind can severely damage the very large leaves. It is said, however, that the leaves of var. dealbata have stouter petioles and are more wind-resistant than those of var. macrophylla (M. Robinson, pers. comm. 2008). A 5.2 m (2008) plant at the Hillier Gardens was grown from seed collected by Harold Hillier in 1979. The older trees mentioned above must derive from this introduction or a gathering of six seeds by James Russell in 1983 (JR 413).