An old neighbor used to say that when the giant tulip tree across the street bloomed you just knew that winter was not over and that we were sure to get a late frost. Sure enough, every March following a mild winter in Georgia we’d get a late freeze, and the beautiful deep purple blossoms that often emerged as early as Valentine’s Day suddenly turned into an unsightly brown mush.
Such is the fate in temperate climates where this early spring bloomer just can’t wait to shout, “Spring is on the way!”
Tulip trees – also known as tulip magnolias and saucer magnolias – are among the most beautiful specimen trees, perfect as a focal point in the garden or a patio planting for enjoying up close. The Magnolia x soulangeana is prized for its large cup-like purple, pink, yellow or white blossoms up to 4 inches across that typically unfurl in March. If not doused by a late frost, the blooms on this deciduous tree, which can sometimes be fragrant, can last a month before giving way to dark green leaves from 3 to 7 inches long.
Because they grow to only 20 to 30 feet tall, tulip magnolias make the perfect small specimen tree. Most prefer full sun and moist, well-drained soil; they do not tolerate wet feet, nor are they drought tolerant. Magnolias experience few problems with insects and disease so are easy to grow.
Other than its vulnerability to those late freezes, what’s not to like about the tulip magnolia? If that’s stopping you from planting one, know that there are a few varieties, such as ‘Jane’, that bloom later in the spring. Also, the yellow-flowering types, such as ‘Butterflies’ and ‘Elizabeth’, tend to be tougher specimens.
So the next time you find yourself looking out the window for signs of spring, look to the nearest tulip tree!