Lights Out

magnolia soulangiana

I planted a magnolia not unlike this one for a client 25 years ago.  She called to tell me it was in full bloom-would I care to come take a look?  Did I mention it was in full bloom in March, due to a jet stream anomaly?  Needless to say, I did not make it there in time.  2 nights ago, the overnight temp was 25 degrees.  A blast of arctic air out of Canada blew a huge hole in my jet-stream configured, and unprecedented March.  Magnolias are entirely susceptible to early spring frosts, not to mention early spring heat.  I have 12 magnolias in my yard-none of them bit on this March season.    

 It’s a very good idea to have other reasons to plant magnolias besides their enormous and breathtakingly beautiful flowers.  You might have those flowers for a few days, given an unfriendly spring. Nonetheless,  I have planted lots of them.  I like their large glossy leaves.  I like their ghostly grey and smooth bark. I like their low and wide structure.  Thier structure is penetrating-this I cannot really explain.  There are good reasons to have magnolias in every season. 


 Galaxy magnolia

 They are well suited to small urban gardens.  I have lots of them in my neighborhood, planted inches from the foundation of the house.  I know how that tree came to be in those yards.  A homeowner saw a small tree in full bloom at a nursery in the spring.  They fell like a rock for those flowers.  They brought the little tree home, and planted it in a bed at the corner of the house about 3 feet in depth.  Who wants to deal with more than 3 feet of bed?  Decades later, those trees purchased over a momentary infatuation are still thriving.   

frost on magnolias

Yesterday I came home at 10 am to take the frost blankets off of my hellebores.  My Galaxy magnolia is a hybrid who parentage includes the bloom frost prone magnolia soulangiana. Those gorgeous hot pink blooms were a droopy black mess.  This tree has grown a lot in the past 11 years-too much for me to cover.  The flowers came on very suddenly, given our run of over 70 degree weather.      

frost prone magnolias

Even in full bloom, they drooped from the out of season March heat.  As much as I am furious that these flowers were tricked into opening, I know they had no other choice but to pull the trigger, and bloom.  The idea that biology is destiny is great in the context of a textbook, but the reality was heartbreaking.  They were my pleasure for 1.5 days.   

magnolia petals

 The gooey black mass of frosted flowers still hang on my trees.  Last year the petals fell in a timely way, and quietly.  This is the best my driveway has ever looked. 

This magnolia Stellata was but a 3 foot tall start wehen I bought this house.  It has grown slowly and steadily over the past 15 years.  It is always the first thing to bloom in my garden.  This year, March 16.   

magnolia stellata

The individual flowers are incredibly beautiful.  I have been known to go out stand up close to this tree for some time early in the spring.  Buck always pretends not to notice-this is just one of the things I really like about him.  He is really tolerant of my love for magnolias.  They bloom for such a short time, even in a moderate spring.  My idea-take it in while you can-damn the torpedoes.


 frost tolerant magnolias

 At 10 the next morning after the frost, I see the telltale signs.  The stellata blooms are drooping, sagging from the gravity of the frost.  The PJM rhododendron in the foreground-no trace remains today of those flowers, but tufts of papery brown where the flowers once were. 

Butterflies magnolia

I have 8 Butterflies magnolias underplanted with boxwood in the front of my house.  This photograph I took 2 days ago.  I knew the flower buds would not survive a hard frost. 

yellow magnolias

This picture from last spring represents my most favorite spring moment.  Those pale yellow green blooms set on top of the branches-exquisite.

yellow flowered magnolias

My yellow magnolias are thriving.  They endow my front yard garden every season of the year.  I am sure you can tell by now that I am a fan.  Any species, any hybrid which tolerates my zone, I plant them.  The magnolias-bring them on.  I take the time to try and interest clients in them.  I cannot bring myself to post the picture I took of the yellow Butterflies buds today.  That clear pale yellow pointed bud is now an ochre brown color.  No flowers this year.  It is not so hard to get used to this idea, knowing that other gardeners in other parts of the country are living through multiple days of killing frosts. My trees will be beautiful this season.  Next spring might mean spectacular flowers.  In my hope chest, flowers on the Butterflies magnolias next year. 



  1. The sadness is tough to take…but I appreciate your attitude…it helps everyone. I can’t say that I am not concerned about what is going to happen to everything. My petasites leaves are all black and shriveled…all the emergent foliage on the anemones is dark and curled up…the tulips heads — questionable…the daffodils seem to be hanging on. I sure hope we don’t get another blast, or we’re done for. I hope the fruit farmers aren’t totally screwed. At least it isn’t my livelihood under siege…only my joy.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Michael, nature is very tough-but so are plants. The will to live is incredibly strong. Entire trees that defoliate from frost or leaf miners can and do releaf. I would not be surprised to see all of your perennials roar back. They have had a little hard pruning-they are not dead at the root. If the buds on your tulips blast, I would not expect to see send up new flowers. The bulb has enough food stored for one. Keep me apprised. At the very least, there is something to be learned here about coping with late winter (March is late winter, yes?) frosts. Deborah

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