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.


  1. Diana Noone says

    Love the yellow… just gorgeous!

  2. Good luck with the lottery! Beauty should be preserved.

  3. robet adams says

    What a splendid description of a great man. Phil, Dennis Ledvina and I had a little tract near Lake Michigan, where we envisioned we would grow M. campbellii and sargentii robusta. Unfortunately the deer enjoyed our fine Magnolias more than we did.

    Roy Klehm is also a Phil Savage admirer. He and Phil Savage jointly had the patent for M. x ‘Butterflies’.
    I think it is still the best yellow. Unfortunately, the denudata parent, ‘Sawada’s Cream’ can no longer be found. Phil also searched in vain for the plant.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Robet, thank you for this letter. I so greatly admired him, and I still have hope that his property will be swept up by someone who will tend to the trees. It is still for sale. My Butterflies magnolias are so beautiful in the spring. Deborah

  4. Helen Ashton says

    I bought a Butterflies Magnolia about 4 years ago at a GROCERY STORE!!! Can you believe it? I live in NY State. This past winter we had a snow cover that lasted all winter. Unfortunately the mice chewed the base of the trunk and I lost several limbs but not all. I now have a few shoots (suckers?) coming up from below the groung with leaves larger than the original. Is this tree grafted? Should I cut them back? I now see buds forming on the original tree although, the original tree does not look all that vigerous and next year will be the first blooms-if the tree survives. What should I do? I love this tree!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Helen, as with anything in a garden, roll with it. Wait and see what happens. I would guerss the suckers are the rootstock-but wait to see what happens. You will never know what might be just right for your garden is you don’t give everything a chance to be. Deborah

  5. Naila Caruso says

    Hi-I finally started looking for a replacement for my beloved magnolia which a tenant cut down after it had a split in that ice storm up there-about 4 day power outage-a few years back. It may be 2004-we had power out a week down here in Columbus. It was a team from Detroit Edison (Wyandotte) who finally replaced the 3 poles on my property line on New Year’s day here (Columbus Ohio)in 2005.

    While you were cruising the property you mentioned some real staggering trees on the order of what I should like-did the niece know the trees well? Would she recall some names if I wrote to her? Or did you know the cultivars? How badly did they wack it?

    Are there still trees enough to make one approach the new owners for permission to look about?

    It may have just been size but no butterfly ever came close to the scent on our. I never thought to try finding out the cultivar-just assumed it was soulangiana since that was the common plant of the 30’s.

    I would ADORE finding a strongly scented magnificent plant to put back at home since the ghosts of my parents probably glower each spring at the remaining nigra each spring.

    Do you recall the best scented magnificent one?

    Westcroft Gardens-owned by the Stanton family rhody specialists (and long time island residents who lived just upriver of us on West River) put in our and our next door neighbors landscaping in the 30’s and 40’s. At that point the emphasis was for grand formality on larger yards. The hell with blocking a view of the river if it grew big.

    I know I won’t get the same grandeur in my lifetime. Ours blocked the house from the river smack on the now defunct septic tank and start of the tile field.

    By the time I recall it was some 40 plus feet wide and almost as tall when we moved into the house in 61. Despite Grosse Ile going to sewar system, it continued to grow and outgrew our two story house.
    Any cultivar ideas? If so-I should love suggestions.

    Yes-Butterfly has worked here and the pup I put in the back yard with stellata are all right, but neither so scented or floriferous.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Naila, I am afraid I cannot offer you much help in your search for a fragrant and floriferous magnolia. The trees I wrote about are much too large to be moved, and I was only able to visit that one time as I have a personal relationship with his niece. The property does not belong to her. My only suggestion is to call Steve Alford at Landscape Supply in Taylor. 1 734 946 7000. He is as good a horticulturist as I have ever met. If anyone would know, he would. Good luck to you! Deborah

  6. Magnolias, a magical Botanical Garden for Detroit, superb and noble!

    Rather than wait for a lottery win this idea deserves to be immediately, fully and amply funded by anyone, individual, corporate or government, who would foster a lasting, meaningful and sustainable civilization in community, region or nation.

    I encourage you to organize and find the well deserved (financial and otherwise) support for your visionary dream.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Francisco, many thanks for the encouragement. The Savage property has been sold. But two nurseries are collaborating on taking cuttings of his magnolias, so the varieties will not be lost. Thanks for writing, Deborah

  7. William D. Savage says

    Nice to see someone talking about my Grandfather. I remember walking through his magnolia gardens when I was a child and simply thinking they attracted a terrible amount of bees. As I got older, and I realized that a few of the magnolias had flowers that existed nowhere else on Earth. It is a shame, because they will never be seen again now that the property has been turned into an old-folks home. They were beautiful.

    • Laurel Christensen says

      Thank you, Phil Savage. I’ve worked in the nursery business in Michigan for 42 years, and I think my favorite flowering tree is the impressive Magnolia ‘Butterflies’.

    • Could I not get a limb or seed to recreate all his works..what is the exact address so I can see the beauty in Google satellite I used to live on big beaver road .i am planninning a big future garden amongst organic produce..
      N have any members if your family collected any seeds secretly. Ga gie .9174000333

      • Deborah Silver says

        Dear Gie, I am sorry to say that all of the trees are gone now. There is a retirement home there now. best, Deborah

    • MaryAnn Ringwelski says

      William Savage:
      I’m wondering if I might have trees hybridized by your uncle. Years ago (sometime in the 90’s) I saw an article in the Minnesota Horticulture Society publication about a gentleman who was hybridizing magnolias. I believe he said he was retired from research or teaching. I don’t remember his name but he was somewhere east of MN. Since this was before internet magic, I found a phone number through regular listings and actually reached the person. When I asked about buying a tree, he said he didn’t sell them but gave them to friends. He agreed to send me 2 for the price of shipping ($10). They are still growing in my yard and cause quite a sensation every spring. I’m very curious to know if this could have been your uncle.

  8. Great to have Gold Star in akureyri Iceland.
    I saw right away it is special.
    You should be happy that his hybrids are all over the world and greatly appreciated!
    Looking forward to see it grow. Got it from Stan Zymon Poland
    PS the magnolia society has all the journals on their web that members can access.

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