Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Magnificent magnolias bring early sign of spring

The original cup and saucer magnolia (Magnolia campbellii) still blooms each spring at the San Francisco Botanical garden.
The original cup and saucer magnolia (Magnolia campbellii) still blooms each spring at the San Francisco Botanical garden. San Francisco Botanical Garden

These trees are full of surprises.

Tempted by a few days of almost-spring temperatures, “cup and saucer” magnolias burst into bloom. On bare gray limbs, flowers as big as teacups or bowl-like saucers pop open. In Northern California, this February show is one of the earliest signs of spring.

Seeming to appear out of nowhere, great masses of pastel magnolia blooms appear in Sacramento neighborhoods. Sometimes, they tower over houses, shocking pedestrians and motorists who had never noticed these trees. At Capitol Park, a mammoth magnolia becomes a temporary pink and purple landmark before fading back into the park’s urban forest of big trees.

At San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park, the magnolias form a link to the garden’s earliest history.

The first of these magnolias was planted in 1939 by the garden’s first director, Eric Walther, and it immediately became the garden’s signature plant. Believed to be the first of its kind to bloom in the United States, the garden’s original “cup and saucer magnolia” (Magnolia campbellii) still thrives and flowers today.

“It’s the queen of the magnolia genus,” said Corey Barnes, the garden’s associate curator. “It’s probably also the one best suited for the home landscape because it stays a more manageable size.”

In the wild, these magnolias can reach 80 to 100 feet, Barnes noted. The San Francisco collection has several specimens close to that range, and are covered with flowers from top to bottom.

“The bloom is absolutely one of the peak experiences of the year here,” said Don Mahoney, the garden’s curator emeritus. “A towering tree with thousands of large pink flowers held upright against a blue sky is a sight you will remember for the rest of your lifetime.”

Starting with that original tree, the 55-acre botanical garden is home to one of the largest magnolia collections outside Asia. Its current collection contains 51 magnolia species, 42 cultivars and 16 hybrids, including several rarities. In addition to the deciduous magnolias, the collection features several evergreen magnolias such as America’s native Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).

Barnes loves the view from the top of one of the garden’s many hills. Great pink, purple and white clouds of flowers seem to float among the treetops.

“It’s like firework explosions, all against this sea of dusty evergreen or dull bare limbs,” said Barnes, who will lead tours of the magnolia groves on Feb. 20 and 27. “We’re still in the tail end of winter when not much else is blooming, but to see those flowers is so fabulous.

“They’re really a precocious bloomer,” he added. “The flowers come out before the leaves and they offer such an amazing show. Relatively few trees offer anything like this.”

In addition to the visual beauty, magnolias often have a unique fragrance, Barnes said. “I really love the star magnolia. To me, it has such a profusion of petals; they look like little starbursts and they smell great. I also love the Magnolia doltsopa; it’s an evergreen variety (originally from Nepal) with very fragrant white flowers. It has a wonderful bright lemony scent; you wonder, ‘Where is it coming from?’ 

Growing naturally along rivers, magnolias are considered “medium water” trees. In home landscapes, most species require weekly irrigation. Barnes recommends mulch to help these trees retain soil moisture, especially during times of drought.

Otherwise, they’re relatively easy to care for. Barnes recommends fertilizing after spring bloom once leaves start to appear.

Besides the now-familiar purple cup and saucer magnolia, Asian magnolias come in other pastels, Barnes said. White, cream, pink and purple or combinations are the most common.

“We also have yellow specimens,” he said. “Their flowers come out later in February.”

The garden also developed its own magnolia cultivars and introduced them to the public for home landscape use. Among the most successful was Strybing White, a pure white magnolia with striking flowers.

“If you have a Strybing White magnolia, it traces directly back to this botanical garden,” Barnes said. “We’ve been linked to these trees from the beginning. They really are part of our heritage.”

Barnes counts close to 350 trees in the garden’s magnolia collection, including some seedlings and young trees. These plants are not only beautiful, but their survival appears fragile, he added.

“Magnolias could be the polar bear of the plant kingdom,” he said. “People love them but they don’t realize they’re also in danger of extinction.

“Magnolias are a good example of an endangered plant,” Barnes explained. “More than 50 percent of the worldwide magnolia species are endangered in their natural habitats. They’re threatened by development, pollution, logging and habitat loss. One of the goals of our collection is to preserve those magnolias from extinction.”

One look at the garden’s magnificent magnolias explains why.

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, 916-321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

Magnolias at their best

Where: San Francisco Botanical Garden

When: 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Admission: $8 general; $6 seniors (age 65 and up); $6 youths (ages 12-17); $2 children (ages 5-11); children ages 4 and under admitted free; $17 families (two adults plus one or more children)

Details:, (415) 661-1316

Highlights: The garden’s famous collection of Asian magnolias is now at its peak of bloom. To celebrate, the garden offers “magnolia walk” maps, docent tours and other special activities. Corey Barnes, associate curator, will lead tours on Feb. 20 and 27. Expect to see trees in flower through early March.