As I live very close to Mount Congreve Gardens in Waterford, magnolias are a big part of my gardening year as I can see not only an unrivaled selection of magnolias but also plantings in numbers which cannot be seen anywhere else. The February flowering of Magnolia campbellii, a planting made over fifty years ago by the garden’s owner and creator Mr. Ambrose Congreve, is one of the most fabulous planting of magnolias anywhere in the world. The storms of February 2014 did a great deal of damage in the gardens but such events can at times bring improvement and the loss of two large cherry tree to the side of a pathway in one of the higher parts of the garden suddenly opened a vista over 150 metres of the canopies of Magnolia campbellii, a vista the famous horticulturalist, Roy Lancaster, said he had never witnessed in all his travels, not even in the forests of China, the natural home of Magnolia campbellii. There are as many Magnolia campbellii again in other parts of the garden and an avenue of Magnolia x soulangeana of over 100 metres.
I cannot think of any other tree which gives as spectacular a display in the garden as the magnolia and while many are what might be described as forest trees, growing to fifty feet or more, there are also many others which are perfectly suited cultivation in smaller gardens. Magnolia x soulangeana is probably the most commonly grown of these, a cross between Magnolia denudata and Magnolia liliflora made by Etienne Soulange-Bodin in Paris and which first flowered in 1826. In its various guises it has graced gardens worldwide ever since. Its creator had served in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte before his retirement to establish a nursery in Paris and his interest in magnolias and I always feel gladdened that he did not follow his own comment on war – “It would have been better for both parties that they stay at home to grow their cabbages.” Though, to be accurate, it seems he grew vegetables to a standard and in a variety not previously seen in Europe and his plant interests covered other species also; dahlias being one favourite.
There are many, many other magnolias – species and innumerable cultivars – which would add beauty to our gardens and joy to our senses. The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias by Andrew Bunting gives a detailed description, along with excellent illustration, to 146 from which we might choose. The information for each is clear and concise and will guide selection with notes on size, hardiness and flowering times – somewhat critical with magnolias as those which flower earliest are prone to frost damage so it is important to make choices to suit your local conditions. There are introductory chapters: “Why I Love Magnolias” – which seems superfluous to me as I could not understand why anybody would not love them – “Designing with Magnolias” and “Understanding Magnolias” which together give an informative introduction to the main section of the book and there is a concluding chapter on “Growing and Propagation Magnolias”.
Andrew Bunting is assistant director of the garden and director of collections at Chicago Botanic Garden and had previously worked at the Scott Arboretum in Pennsylvania for 25 years where he built a national collection of magnolias which gained recognition by the North American Plant Collections Consortium. So, quite simply, he is well experienced and well qualified to write a worthwhile book on this species. Given his background it is, perhaps, not surprising that he writes from an American perspective and that his comments relate to North America more specifically than to western Europe. Indeed, to my disappointment, neither Mount Congreve nor Ireland receive a mention other than the listing of “Marjorie Congreve” as a form of Magnolia campbellii.
Nonetheless, my local bias aside, I could not but recommend this book. It is the most comprehensive, compact and convenient presentation on magnolias that is available. It is well written, well illustrated and wonderfully produced – another in the series of “Plant Lover’s Guides” from Timber Press, a thoroughly excellent series. If you are thinking of having some magnolias in your garden I would suggest you first purchase and read this book. Few garden centres stock a selection of magnolias so you will have very little choice locally. However, with a little research in this book, you can make a well-informed choice and may then to go on to source the tree which will give you joy and pleasure for many years to come.
[The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias, Andrew Bunting, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2016, Hardback, 229 pages, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1-604-659786]