Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

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Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Ashe's Magnolia

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Even "hardy" bananas can be a challenge in New England.  Here's a hardy tree with foliage that looks just as tropical: Banana-leaved magnolia.  I'm growing the runt of the litter, Magnolia ashei, whose leaves might get "only" two feet long, and which doesn't (usually) mature to more than fifteen or twenty feet.  For those of you needing a banana-leaved magnolia with the biggest leaves as well as overall size, consider Ashe's magnolia's big brother, Magnolia macrophylla.  Its leaves can be three feet long, on a tree that rivals an oak or beech in scale.

 

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With so many hundreds of other plants to grow, I've been able to reserve only enough space for this shrubby banana-leaf, which often doesn't get much larger than a lilac.

 

 

Here's how to grow this unusually compact banana-leaved magnolia:


Latin Name

Magnolia macrophylla ssp. ashei.  (Synonym: Magnolia ashei.)

Common Name

Ashe's Magnolia

Family

Magnoliaceae, the Magnolia family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous shrub or small tree.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 9, although hardiness into Zone 5 has also been reported.

Habit

Upright and shrubby, with multiple trunks.

Rate of Growth

Medium to fast. 

Size in ten years

Typically, Ashe magnolia becomes ten to twenty feet tall, and ten to fifteen feet wide.  Trees don't read books, though: One specimen is reported to be over forty feet tall.

Texture

Full but still open.  The canopy of leaves doesn't fully conceal the branches.

Grown for

its comparatively small scale:  Magnolia ashei is the banana-leaved magnolia to plant when you don't have room for any of the rest—see "Variants," below—which can become as tall and wide as full-sized oaks or beeches.

 

its foliage:  They don't call M. ashei a "banana-leaved" magnolia for nothing.  Its leaves are wide, smooth-edged, pale green—and a foot or two long.  In whorls at the tips of sparse branches, they give the tree a tropical look unachievable in temperate climates with anything but a magnolia.

 

its flowers:  Ivory-white, pleasingly fragrant (those of some other banana-leaved magnolias are shockingly smelly), and six to twelve inches across.  M. ashei is a precocious bloomer, too:  Even if your plant is only three years old, be on the lookout.

 

its resistance to deer:  Magnolia cultivars and species are usually not of interest to deer.

Flowering season

Late Spring, after the leaves have emerged.  June here in Rhode Island.

Color combinations

The ivory-white flowers of Ashe's magnolia go with almost anything, as do its mid-green leaves.   

Partner Plants


If Ashe's magnolia is placed where it can be seen from top to bottom, shrubby partners that are low, mounding, and evergreen would provide a handsome and solidly "structural" look year-round.  The foliage of all of the banana-leaved Magnolia species and cultivars partners easily with darker as well as smaller foliage.  Ilex crenata 'Helleri' grows full to the ground and, even after many years, can be only four to five feet tall and six or seven feet wide.  With its small and dark-green leaves, it would be an ideal partner.  

 

If warm-weather appearance trumps the need for evergreen foliage during the cold months, the large and smooth-edged foliage of M. ashei would be an exciting contrast to ferns.  At any preferred size, choose fern species and cultivars whose leaflets are pointy and even jagged, not rounded or smooth.  Ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthioperis, then, not royal fern, Osmunda regalis.

 

The bark of M. ashei is interesting, but only at close range.  The tree could be more telling in Winter—when it's often inconvenient even to go outside, let alone get close enough to the bark to appreciate it—when partnered with one of the small-leaved or bird's-foot ivies that are hardy where you're gardening.  They veneer the branches with evergreen foliage, but not become so bulky that they'd distort the tree's profile.  The dark and pointy foliage would also be a terrific close-at-hand contrast with the magnolia's enormous leaves.  They're present, of course, only in warm weather, just the time that you'll want to come outside and appreciate Ashe magnolia again and again.

 

The tree's colorful performance is limited to early Spring.  The Summer foliage is striking but not, in itself colorful; there is no showy Fall foliage either.  You could add another season of color in warm weather by growing a loose-limbed and Summer-flowering shrub or vine up into the Magnolia branches.  Given how striking the form of this Magnolia is, this would mean a commitment to keeping such a companion plant within the tree's overall shape.  Another consideration is that the Magnolia flowers best when it gets full sun, so you'll want to choose a companion plant whose growth is tall enough—to ten or fifteen feet tops—but not so vigorous or dense it would shade out its Magnolia host.

 

None of the clematis with flowers wider than four inches would grow large enough to overwhelm a mature M. ashei.  'Perle D'Azur' perhaps?  Multiflora roses often become too large, so consider ramblers, instead.  'Don Juan' typically grows ten to twelve feet tall.  'Easley's Golden Rambler' can grow six feet taller, yet another excuse to purchase an even-taller stepladder.

 

Any such flowering climber could also grow alongside one of the "veneering" ivies, which are shade-tolerant enough to thrive amid the additional foliage that the climber would add, at least in warm weather, to that of the Magnolia itself.

Where to use it in your garden

Although sparsely-branching, the multi-trunked habit and large leaves of Magnolia ashei can still create a plant that's full enough to limit the room and light beneath it for partner plants (see above).  Practical as well as pleasing siting, then, would be in a larger expanse of a low groundcover.  If you have room, grow this large-to-very-large shrub as one of many, in a "shrubbery" bed, with neighbors with contrastingly small foliage.  (Again, see above.)  The habit is irregular, and the overall height variable, so Magnolia ashei isn't the species to plant in multiples, where you would be counting on uniformity.  Grow this plant as a solo.

Culture

Full sun to part shade, in any decent soil with reasonable moisture and Winter drainage.  That said, growth is faster in more fertile, friable, and humus-rich soil.   

How to handle it:  The Basics

Magnolia ashei needs little other than to be planted in congenial soil and light, in a space large enough for it to grow free-range.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?


Although some species and cultivars of Magnolia—those of evergreen M. grandiflora, in particular—can be trained, chiefly by espaliering, it's more typical that magnolias are allowed to grow free-range, needing little training to control size or to enhance branching pattern or flowering.  The comparative compactness of M. ashei is fortunate, because it allows the tree to be grown where there isn't room for its banana-leaved relatives (see "Variants," below), which are much larger. 

 

You could limb-up the tree to enhance the impression that it is, in fact, a tree, not a really large shrub.  This also brings more light to the ground under its canopy, permitting more close planting with a wider range of partner plants.

Quirks or special cases


The foliage of banana-leaved Magnolia species and cultivars doesn't achieve notable Fall coloring:  The leaves turn cardboard brown and then drop.  In tidier gardens than mine, you might think that there were, suddenly, banana-leaved pieces of cardboard strewn about the garden.  It's easier to appreciate this as humor than to stress about its entropy.

Downsides

None.

Variants

The Magnolia world is far-flung and teaming, with over a thousand forms arising just from other cultivars.  In addition, there are the many scores of species, which are native to North and South America as well as Asia, from the Himalaya southeastward through Indonesia and the Philippines, then north though Vietnam, China, and Japan.  There are no Magnolia species native to Europe or Africa.  The species hybridize easily, and spontaneous mutations aren't uncommon, either.  All in all, it's a frenzy.  New Magnolia cultivars are as much of a sure thing as death and taxes.

 

Even in summary, the family is too large to gloss, so I'll return again and again to take another whack at the piñata.  See Magnolia 'Sunspire' for an introduction to yellow-flowered species and cultivars; Magnolia grandiflora 'Edith Bogue' for an introduction to the evergreen species and cultivars. 

 

For today, the banana-leaved Magnolia species and cultivars.  M. macrophylla itself is M. ashei writ large, with leaves to three feet long, and flowers over a foot wide.  Those of 'Whopper' are over a foot and a half wide!  The leaves of M. fraseri are comparately demure at eight to fifteen inches long; it has purple-green buds that open into foot-wide flowers with a delightfully unpleasant smell.  The leaves of M. fraseri ssp. pyramidata are the shape of two pyramids joined in mirror image at their bases.  M. tripetala is similar to M. macrophylla, but with the smelly flowers of M. fraseri.  I'll never forget coming across one of the "stinky" banana-leaves at Biltmore House, in Asheville, North Carolina.  (There's a large M. ashei on the Biltmore grounds, too.  Is this the same Ashe that Asheville itself is named for?  Nope: William Ashe, the botanist for whom the tree is named, lived into the 20th century, whereas way back in 1797, Morristown, North Carolina was renamed Asheville in honor of the state's Governor Ashe.)  Its stench was so penetrating it was as if I were nearing the elephant graveyard of old gym shoes. 

 

If I had another acre, I'd add M. obovata to my modest magnolia collection, at least in the form of its hybrid with M. tripetala, 'Silver Parasol':  It has silver-white bark.

 

Given the breadth of the Magnolia breeding stock, the number of Magnolia breeders, and the size of the Magnolia market, all three factors stay in continuous, synergistic, and mediagenic swirl.  Any gaps in Magnolia attributes are likely to be temporary.

 

Even now, with such mountains still to climb as a prostrate magnolia, let alone a weeping magnolia that's evergreen with variegated foliage and orange flares in the petals, there are already too many genres of Magnolia—evergreen, banana-leaved, pink--to-rose-flowered, white-flowered, burgundy-to-red-flowered, yellow-flowered, and oddballs—for even large gardens to have more than one or two of each.  Besides M. ashei, I limp along with two evergreen cultivars ( 'Edith Bogue' and 'Bracken's Brown Beauty'), two yellow ('Sunspire' and 'Butterflies'), an old star magnolia ('Merrill'), one dwarf pink ('Kiki's Broom'), and—this year, please!—the rare variegate, M. virginiana 'Mardi Gras'.

         

When we're in ultimate Nirvana, when all things Magnolia are realized, we'll all be that much more behind.

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By seed.

Native habitat

Magnolia macrophylla ssp. ashei is native to the southeast United States. 

 
 
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