Thank Heaven for These Little Girls
It's almost as certain as death and taxes. Unseasonably mild weather in late winter convinces your spring-flowering magnolia to open its blossoms too early. You get one day of glorious color before an arctic blast of cold air turns the flowers ugly brown overnight.
Oh, well, there's always next year, right? But what would you say if I told you that you could plant later-blooming magnolias that escape such carnage? What if I also told you these same plants bloom sporadically through summer too? And what if I said their small, tidy stature and no-prune nature make them ideal choices for the average garden?
You'd say, "Oh, Grumpy, once again you are my shining light! Please tell me more!"
But, of course.
Back in the 1950s, two breeders at the U. S. National Arboretum crossed lily magnolia (Magnolia liliflora) with star magnolia (M. stellata). They selected a series of superior hybrids that became known as "The Little Girl Series," because each plant was given a girl's name. There are about a half-dozen of them, but the ones you're most likely to encounter at the garden center are ‘Ann,' ‘Jane,' and ‘Susan.' Their 5 to 7-inch flowers appear on leafless branches about two weeks after those of star and saucer (Magnolia x soulangiana) magnolias.
To the untrained eye, they're pretty hard to tell apart. ‘Ann' offers deep purple-pink blooms. Those of ‘Jane' are reddish-purple outside and white inside. ‘Susan' displays deeply colored blossoms of purplish-red.
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Don't worry about the Little Girls hijacking your yard. Almost every garden has room for one. They grow slowly into a dense, multitrunked tree about 12 to 15 feet tall and wide. There is seldom a wayward branch, so put away the loppers. They're among the few trees you can feel comfortable planting close to the house.
The Little Girls like full to part sun and well-drained soil. Pests are few – no spraying required. They grow well in USDA Zones 4 to 8. Many garden centers carry them.
One word of warning, though. Their multi-stemmed forms resembles that of crepe myrtle, leading some lamebrains into committing "magnolia murder" every winter or spring. This stupidly cuts off all the flower buds. So listen to Grumpy and hear me now! DO NOT PRUNE.