Magnolia doltsopa: Michelia doltsopa, sweet michelia
There are trees and then there are trees. Queens among their ranks are the magnolias; strong, majestic, ebullient beauties that grace our gardens with buxom, florid flowers each spring. A well-grown magnolia in full bloom is a thing of breathtaking beauty, so ravishing that one can scarcely believe such a divine creation actually exists. Set against a clear blue sky the flowers appear like tender water lilies floating on a pond. On stormy days the petals flutter and flap like white doves flying towards the heavens.
In case I have not made myself clear, I have quite a “thing” for magnolias. In common with unicorns and rainbows they possess an ethereal, fantastical, other-worldly quality which appeals to the escapist in me. The difference is they really exist (sorry to disappoint any readers who believe in unicorns), which is a good thing for us gardeners. But what is yet rarer and perhaps more mythical than a magnolia? Well, a michelia. These beautiful evergreen trees were, until recently, classed as distinct from magnolias, but are now part of the same, ancient family. Most of us would find it hard to tell a michelia flower apart from a magnolia, but the leaves of a michelia are typically everygreen and the flower buds tend to form in clusters rather than singly at the tips of the branches. Michelia blooms are delicately infused with a scent reminiscent of freesias.
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to see forests of Magnolia doltsopa growing on the mountainsides of Bhutan (see below). Here, in the most gentle of Himalayan nations, this tree was once over-harvested for its precious wood, so to see it growing in the wild was very special. Happily one doesn’t have to venture to the other side of the globe to see Magnolia doltsopa. My first two photographs were taken this March in the woodland garden at Burncoose in Cornwall. The nursery on the same site offers no fewer than eleven different michelias (Burncoose still use the old name in their catalogues), including Michelia laevifolia, Michelia maudiae and pink Michelia “Fairy Magnolia Blush”, which will sound faintly ridiculous when it’s re-labelled Magnolia “Fairy Magnolia Blush”. Still, I can’t enough of magnolias, so the more the better.
Gracious, evergreen, floriferous and compact when young, Magnolia doltsopa deserves to be better known and more widely grown. Plants can be clipped to create topiary or a hedge, and specimens will grow very happily in a large container. Planted in rich, well-drained soil where the tree will catch the morning sun, Magnolia doltsopa will only take 2-3 years to reach full potential and after that flower profusely every spring. They are hardy in much of the UK although, inevitably, late frosts may damage a few blooms. You may not be able to catch a unicorn, or find the end of a rainbow, but you can grow Magnolia doltsopa, so put your order in for one this spring.
Burncoose Nurseries have 2-3 litre potted plants available for delivery from May 2016 priced at £25. Magnolia doltsopa and its cultivars are also widely available in New Zealand.