I once paid a visit to a magnolia expert who had filled his modest-size garden with several hundred specimens of his favorite genus. Planted cheek-by-jowl and kept in bounds by rigorous pruning, they gave the effect of a formal orchard planted by the gods—you expected to catch a glimpse of Aphrodite disporting herself among the clouds of pink, white, and crimson blossom. I’ve sometimes been tempted to emulate my friend—what greater bliss could there be than to have an entire plantation of these magnificent trees? Alas, my Boston garden didn’t lend itself to plantations, so after much research and magnolia-scrutinizing, I scaled back my ambitions to a grove of five M. ×loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’. Why this particular clone? Beauty, first of all. At its peak ‘Leonard Messel’ becomes an almost solid sheet of crimson-purple buds and pale pink, five-inch flowers—easily rivaling of any of its glamorous kin. Second, toughness. The flowers of ‘Leonard Messel’ are relatively frost resistant, and will come unscathed through freezes that turn the flowers of M. denudata and M. ×soulangeana to disgusting brown mush. Finally, scale. Although it can, with time, reach 20 or 30 feet, ‘Leonard Messel’ grows relatively slowly—a boon for small yards.
‘Leonard Messel’ was selected and raised at the renowned Nymans Garden in Sussex, England, in the 1950s. (Magnolia ×loebneri is a hybrid between the Japanese/Korean M. kobus and the Japanese M. stellata.) Since then it has garnered many awards, including a First Class Certificate (1969) and Award of Garden Merit (1984) from the Royal Horticultural Society and, more recently and closer to home, the Cary Award (1998), administered by Tower Hill Botanic Garden.
The best time to plant a deciduous magnolia is early spring, preferably while it is still dormant. (This may mean midwinter for coastal California.) As befits so choice a plant, you will of course give it rich, well-drained soil on the slightly acid side, and a site in full sun or very lightly dappled shade. And because, as you no doubt recall, magnolias have sensitive roots that are easily injured, you will do your best to procure a container-grown specimen, and once it is planted, you will water it well and mulch around it to retain moisture and keep away clodhoppers. If you live in an area where summer water restrictions are a possibility, keep in mind that ‘Leonard Messel’ doesn’t cope well with prolonged drought; you don’t want to wind up with a shriveled stick when you’re aiming for visions of glory.
A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 100, no. 2 (March/April 2003).