With their large flowers and magnificent presentation, magnolias are a staple of the Hamptons’ garden. Despite their current appeal, magnolias are one of the oldest flowering species and have been around since prehistoric times, even before the appearance of flying pollinators such as bees. To survive, magnolias adapted to using beetles to cross-pollinate their flowers.

Big Leaf Magnolia (Magnolia Macrophylla). Images courtesy of Marge Sullivan.

Over the millennia, magnolias have developed into a wide range of shapes, sizes and colors. Magnolias can range from 15 foot shrubs to 80 foot trees. They can be deciduous or semi-evergreen or even evergreen. The deciduous varieties typically bloom in early spring, before the leaves. The evergreen magnolias bloom in late spring and early summer. 

Best of all, several magnolias are native to the United States, making their cultivation easier relative to other species. They are resistant to various diseases and pests and may live for 100 years or more in the right growing conditions. The native species include:

  • Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
  • Saucer magnolia (Magnolia ×soulangiana)
  • Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata)
  • Loebner magnolia (Magnolia ×loebneri)
  • Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
  • Cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata)
  • Big leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla)

Big leaf magnolia is less known than other types, but produces striking ivory-colored flowers, often measuring 8 to 10 inches. The trees need to grow in full sun and may reach 40 feet or more. The tallest Big leaf magnolia has been identified in Kentucky, and it measures 108 feet in height with a 42-foot spread (source: University of Kentucky). In general, larger magnolias of most species have branch spread of 30 to 40 feet, making them great shade trees in the gardens. 

Most magnolias have wide-spread, shallow root systems that can be easily damaged during transplanting. In the Hamptons, magnolias need to be planted in early spring in full sun or part shade, depending on the variety. Most cultivars need to be in well-drained soil. While magnolias prefer soil rich in organic matter, magnolias easily tolerate clay, loam, or sandy soils, making it a perfect plant for Southampton.