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Tree to 11 m, 0.3 m dbh. Bark smooth and pale grey. Branchlets purplish brown and glabrous with sparse lenticels. Leaves deciduous, papery, 7–16 × 3–7 cm, obovate, upper surface dull green and glabrous, lower surface pale green with long curly hairs along the midrib and veins, 8–12 secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins entire, apex short-acuminate; petiole 0.6–1.5 cm long and somewhat pubescent; stipules pubescent, adnate to the base of the petiole. Flowers terminal and produced before the leaves, pinkish to white with a darker centre and a dark pink streak on seven of the tepals, strongly scented; peduncle densely hairy. Tepals 9–12, spathulate, 7–8 × 3–4 cm, all equal in length; stamens purple; gynoecium sessile with numerous carpels. Fruits 5–7 cm long and cylindrical; ripe carpels pinkish red, subglobose and tuberculate. Flowering April to May (February to March in cultivation), fruiting August to September (China). Chen & Noote boom 1993, Gardiner 2000, Liu et al. 2004. Distribution CHINA: Jiangsu. Habitat Forests between 250 and 300 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 5. Conservation status Critically Endangered, due to poor regeneration. Reduced to a single population (18 individuals only) on Mt. Baohua. Illustration Liu et al. 2004; NT506 (hybrid).
Magnolia zenii is a classic pink and white magnolia, on which opinions differ. Some say that it is not amongst the cream of the crop, having rather small flowers that are apt to be damaged by frost, while others view it as very attractive! It has been in cultivation in the United States since the Sino-American Botanical Expedition (SABE) of 1980, when a few seeds were donated to Stephen Spongberg (Arnold Arboretum) and Ted Dudley (US National Arboretum) by Prof. He of the Jiangsu Institute of Botany (Gardiner 2000). The Arnold Arboretum was the first to flower the tree, in 1988, since when it has been consistently the earliest Magnolia to flower there (Spongberg 1998). Vegetative propagations have been distributed from the Arnold Arboretum and a tree from this source, seen at the Morris Arboretum in 2006, had achieved 10 m since being planted in 1989, with a columnar shape from multiple erect stems. Such upright growth seems to be typical of the species, and a similar propagation from an Arnold Arboretum specimen in Vancouver is now 16 m tall (P. Wharton, pers. comm. 2007). The flowers are among the earliest to appear (alongside M. biondii), and benefit from a long winter to prevent them opening too soon, when frost can damage them, especially in eastern North America (A. Aiello, pers. comm. 2006). This is also the case in Belgium (P. de Spoelberch, pers. comm. 2007). Peter Wharton (pers. comm. 2007), however, enthused over the effect in late winter of the very furry buds, covered as they are in long silky, silvery hairs, borne in large numbers on the trees. He also highlighted the intense fragrance of the flowers. Magnolia zenii hybridises freely with other members of section Yulania – the hybridity of the offspring often being revealed by the presence of an outer whorl of small sepaloid tepals – and any seed-propagated stock should be checked carefully. One such seedling from the Arnold Arboretum has been named ‘Pink Parchment’ by Michael Dirr: it is sometimes offered as a form of M. zenii, but is of hybrid origin.