The Magnolias

galaxy-magnolia.jpgIn most every year I have written this blog, there is an essay about magnolias.  I have a big love for them.  The flowers are dramatic and showy-I so welcome a gesture of this magnitude after a long winter.  A good bloom is never a certainty.  They bloom early in my spring-which also means they bloom late in my winter.  Last year, given a string of April days in the low twenties, every bud was reduced to a gooey black rotted mess, hanging from the branches.   That hanging persisted well into the summer-a vile reminder of the capricious nature of spring weather.

blue-sky.jpgBut when the magnolias are good, they are very very good.  My neighborhood has plenty of old saucer magnolias in evidence.  Some are planted very close to the foundations of homes-they do not seem to mind this.  Many have multiple trunks that have grown to considerable size.  A saucer magnolia in full bloom is heart stoppingly beautiful.  My saucer magnolias are a hybrid of magnolia soulangiana, named Galaxy.  The day I planted the three of them in my driveway garden, they had long spindly arms-gawky, they were.  The one tree with the most sun has grown to a considerable size.

magnolias-and-maples.jpgThe second tree will catch up to tree number one in the next few years.  Tree 3 took a giant hit in the trunk from a careless truck driver in the driveway.  Late this winter I took down an old Norway maple in this area whose girdling roots have been hard at work squeezing the life out of it.  So little of the canopy was green last year-looking at it made me wince.  It was time to give up the maple, in the interest of the health of the magnolias-and a group of parrotias.

galaxy-magnolia.jpgThis cool spring made for a glorious magnolia bloom season.  I admired them up close.  I stood under their blossom laden branches.  I admired them from afar.  Why this love of magnolias?  The spectacular bloom aside, they are a very handsome tree.  The grey bark is beautiful.  The mossed bark on old trees-sensational.  The leaves are large, and glossy.  Their winter shape is strikingly architectural.  They are beautiful trees, no matter the season.  Their mature size is a size that any modest city property such as my own, could accommodate.  I have a city lot and a half, which is home to 11 magnolias-no kidding.     magnolia-butterfly.jpg

8 of my magnolias are planted in the half lot, in the front of my yard.  They are under planted with boxwood.  They are yellow magnolias-yes yellow.  Hybridized by Phil Savage, the blooms of the magnolia “Butterflies” are the most astonishingly gorgeous pale yellow imaginable. I met Phil Savage when I was young, and working for Al Goldner.  Al was a landscape designer who owned a nursery.  He loved plants-and he loved design.  I was so lucky for my exposure to him, and his work.  Al made it his business to introduce anyone designing for him to people who grew great plants.  So many years later, I treasure that experience.

magnolia-Butterflies.jpgPhil owned a large property in my area.  Though he passed away a few years ago, that property is loaded with magnolias-many of which exceed 60 feet in height.  I had occasion to see his trees in full bloom a few years ago, courtesy of a niece, who is a client.  I was astonished at what I saw.  Yellow, peach, pale pink and hot pink flowers on magnolias that towered high above the ground.  My pictures of his property are so bad-I would not publish them.  But the experience of his vision about magnolias-this I will never forget.  This is why I plant magnolias, any time I have the chance.


The bloom, even in a really great year, is not long.  Should you need more than that momentary experience of their shockingly beautiful flowers, consider their leaves, and their gorgeous shape.  I for one do not mind an experience of the garden that is fleeting.  Every season has  its perfect moment.  I do not need any plant, any garden, or any landscape to to do more than their season.  I do not hold the brevity of a season against any tree.  As for  Phil Savage’s property-yes.  It has been sold.  The buyer I would guess has no interest in that magnolia forest the likes of which I am sure does not exist any where else on this planet.  The new owner has another idea in mind.  I hear from friends and colleagues in the growing community that there is a plan to take cuttings.  I so pray this plan comes to be.

A plan to preserve and nurture the magnolias bred by Phil Savage-this seems a fitting essay for Mother’s Day weekend.

The extraordinary Mr. Phil Savage

I have a big love for magnolias; I would have any and all of them, if I could.  I admire their big glossy leaves, and pale grey bark.  Most zone 5 hardy magnolias top out at 25 feet; they are a perfect tree for a small property.  Their spring flowers are strikingly large-and simply beautiful.  Some years our spring is so short they might be in bloom only a few days; I do not fault them for this.  Write a protest letter to Ms. Nature-should you have an inclination-but do not expect an answer.  Zone 5 gardeners-we ought to be used to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune-I am quoting Shakespeare here. No matter how many years in a row I would need to live through a late season killing frost, I would still plant magnolias.  Magnolias are so beautiful in every other regard, I have no problem recommending them.

Magnolia Stellata, or star magnolia, and the saucer magnolia, Magnolia Soulangiana, are common to my area. They, and their progeny and hybrids, grace many a spring landscape in my city.  Wada’s Memory, a hybrid of Magnolia Stellata, is a particularly beautiful white cultivar.  Ivory Chalice, bred by Dr Leach from the species Magnolia Denudata, is exceptionally striking in a good year.  It blooms early, and the blooming can be damaged by unexpected cold.  Should you have Ivory Chalice on your property this year, I am sure you are dancing with delight.  Plant this tree if you are a trouper gardener.  Do not plant this tree if you live by your expectations.

But by far and away, my favorite magnolia is Yellow Butterflies.  Bred by Phil Savage, a world renowned magnolia hybridizer, its fragrant pale yellow flowers are the best part of my spring landscape.   He lived on a large property right on Woodward Avenue in Bloomfield Hills for many years.  I met him in 1987 courtesy of Al Goldner, a noted landscape designer who mentored me for some years.  Al was very interested that any designer first and foremost needed to learn as much as possible about plants.  He was forever hauling his group to see this breeder, or that farm.  It was an education bordering on priceless; I understand that now.

I have no photographs of Phil Savage’s property, but I can describe it.  Magnolias towering at the better part of 50 feet tall were everywhere. Some were white, some were pink.  Others were peach, or yellow, or bordering on orange-colors I had never seen before.  Some trees with trunk calipers approaching 40 or 50 inches-magnolias grafted onto ash tree rootstock. The grafts were giant and incredibly sculptural.  Visiting his property was like visiting another planet. 

Just a few years ago, I visited his property again-courtesy of his niece-a client. He had passed away, and the property was for sale.  She thought I might like to see the magnolias in bloom.  What I saw there took my breath away.  A lifetime devoted to growing trees was in evidence everywhere. Magnolias, and more magnolias.  The size of his trees-like nothing I had ever seen. A giant forest of magnolias-imagine it. Most of these trees have never been introduced into commerce; the scientist and the dreamer had grown trees like I have never seen before or since.  The property is pure magic. 

The property was purchased from the family by a group intending to build a facility for the aged.  His niece was concerned that many of his trees would be felled, destroyed, in that process. I did have GP Enterprises, who successfully moves big trees, look at the property.  So many of the big trees were much too big to be moved. This was not so much comfort for her-she felt her Uncle’s work should be looked after, not cut down.  I was powerless to do anything-this felt so bad.

Phil Savage’s most beautiful and well-known cultivar-Butterflies.  This clear pale yellow flowering magnolia -I planted ten of them on either side of a walk to my back yard, and underplanted them with boxwood.  They have been in 6 years now; this spring their blooming is heavy and gorgeous.  A cross between the cucumber magnolia-Magnolia Acuminata, and Magnolia Denudata Sawada’s cream-it is exquisite in bloom, in leaf, in bark, and in habit. Every day for the last week, I pull up in front with the corgis in tow-and get out to take photographs. They lean out the rear window as if to ask-what are you up to?  I am up to trying to capture the color, the shape, the fragrance-all those things that defy recording.  No photograph could possibly do justice to how beautiful they are right now-come by if you can. 

I know I posted a few days ago about how I wish Detroit had a botanic garden, and that in the event I decided for the first time to buy a lottery ticket, and won, I would put that money towards a botanic garden for my city.  I could refine that dream.  The group that bought the property-they have no plans to build over Phil Savage’s magnolias right now; their project is on hold.  If I could, I would write them a check, and wave them off.  I would make a botanic garden-presided over by the most singular and amazing magnolia grove it has ever been my privilege to see.  I have my dreams, yes I do.

Wish me luck.