The Tulip Tree (Saucer Magnolia)

Saucer Magnolia

February is the magical time of year in North Texas when the Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana), or locally called, Tulip Tree, bursts with huge, 6-8 inch blooms in varying shades of pink against the otherwise barren winter landscape.  The tree’s timing, aroma and shades of flowers are quite appropriate for the month of love.  And, as its common name suggests, the goblet-shaped, pastel blossoms borne on bare limbs are indeed reminiscent of a huge bouquet of Valentine’s Day tulips.

The Saucer Magnolia is a small, multi-trunked tree or shrub, very similar in size and shape to that of a Crape Myrtle.  It can be manipulated, when young, to grow with one main trunk if more of a “tree” specimen is preferred.  The tree typically grows 15 – 25 feet in height and can reach about 20 feet in width.  Also like the Crape Myrtle, the Saucer Magnolia will tolerate part sun, but does best in full sun.   Due to its compact size and pest-free, disease resistant nature, the Saucer Magnolia is a very good ornamental tree for small, urban/suburban lawns.

Saucer Magnolia

A deciduous tree, the Saucer Magnolia boasts branches of silvery gray bark in wintertime that are even more striking come February (or later in northern states) when they support their airy canopy of fragrant, pink-toned flowers. After the relatively short, 2-3 week initial flower burst occurs, the tree will develop thick, dark green leaves that will spread into a beautifully full and rounded canopy, lasting throughout the fall season. Sporadic flowers may appear now and then on the tree even after its leaves have emerged.  When the flowers are spent, elongated, multi-compartment, seed pods will likely form. As with most magnolias, the seeds that are ultimately released from these cone-like pods will be a brilliant orange-red, providing added interest to the tree as well as sustenance to songbirds during the fall months.  The seasonal cycle of beautiful traits then begins again.

The most commonly known magnolia in America is the Southern Magnolia, abundant in the southeastern United States to the point of being symbolic of the south and its Antebellum era. And while most within the magnolia family indeed prefer the warmth and humidity of the subtropics, the Saucer Magnolia enjoys the temperate climates of the US also (Zones 5 – 9) and will thrive northward into the Midwest and parts of New England.

The Saucer Magnolia is happiest when planted in fertile, well-drained soil that leans toward the acidic side, however it will tolerate clay soils as long as it receives consistent, moderate amounts of water.  It does not tolerate drought or soggy roots.  On a personal note, if I were planting a Saucer Magnolia in heavy clay soil, as is the case in many portions of North Central Texas, I would supplement with a touch of peat moss at the time of planting and/or would fertilize the tree with acidic plant food now and then – just to keep it content.

Saucer Magnolia

Before I conclude, I’d like to express a few caveats re nomenclature:  Although family & friends have called this early-blooming shrub a Tulip Tree as long as I can remember, I have learned there is indeed another tree with this identical common name.  I thought I could simply title this article The Magnolia Tulip Tree or The Tulip Magnolia Tree to differentiate, but alas, the “other” Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, is also part of the magnolia family!   This “other” Tulip Tree does have some major differences, however.  It is a much, much larger specimen and instead of pink-tinted blooms, it produces yellow tulip-like flowers that are lined with orange bands.

Please bear with me a step further as I explain the Saucer Magnolia is actually a hybrid of two early magnolia specimens – Magnolia liliiflora and Magnolia denudate – both parents of which are also sometimes referred to as Tulip Trees themselves, or variations thereof.

Finally, it is good to note, should you choose to seek out a Tulip Tree for planting, that there are many newly developed cultivars (variations) of the Saucer Magnolia that have been bred to produce specific, uniform flower colors versus the transitioning tri-toned pink shades that are found on the original hybrid.  For example, within the new cultivars you may find a tree that produces very pale, almost white, blooms or another that displays deep burgundy, almost black, blooms.  Keep in mind some of the newer varieties tend to be a bit smaller in stature at maturity than the original hybrid.

As to all the explanations above and for the purpose of this post, I focused upon the common Saucer Magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana, in this article.  And while I believe any type of magnolia would be a wonderful addition to your yard, the Saucer Magnolia would definitely steal the spotlight those first few weeks when winter slowly surrenders to spring.

Until next time,
Cindy

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