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Hardy Magnolias for Northern Gardens

“Leonard Messel” hardy magnolia in bloom.

Magnolia trees conjure up images of genteel southern plantations and live oak draped with Spanish moss. Many northern gardeners aren’t aware of the several hardy varieties of magnolia that will grow and thrive as far north as USDA Zone 4.


I wasn’t aware of this until I saw a potted magnolia seedling (pictured at right) in bloom and for sale at the Farmer’s Market. You can be assured it is hardy in Minnesota and other Zone 4 areas.

The Star Magnolia, Magnolia kobus var stellata, is one of the most common hardy magnolias grown. It is actually a large bush, growing about ten feet tall, with an upright, uniform appearance. Its branches spread out nearly as wide as it is tall and are somewhat tiered. Star Magnolia produces white blooms in late April or early May.

“Leonard Messel” and “Merrill” magnolias are the result of a cross between the tree-like Magnolia kobus and its shrubby variety stellata. They both grow somewhat larger than the Star Magnolia. “Leonard Messel” has delicate, lovely pink blossoms with white inner petals and “Merrill” offers white flowers on an extremely vigorous and large growing tree.

The Cucumber Tree Magnolia, Magnolia acuminata, is so-named in reference to its fruit aggregates, which somewhat resemble cucumbers. This magnolia is grown primarily as a large and beautiful shade tree rather than for its flowers. These trees can grow to eighty feet tall and forty feet wide.

You’ll find potted magnolia trees at the garden center. Magnolias don’t like their roots disturbed so you’ll rarely, if ever, find them for sale as bare root or balled and burlapped plants. When you get it home, plant it into its final growing place and leave it there.

Plant magnolias in full sun; they’ll grow in light shade, but will produce fewer flowers and exhibit less vigorous growth.

Make sure that the tree gets adequate water the first year after you plant it. Thereafter, it should do nicely fending for itself, although all trees benefit from artificial watering during times of drought.

Magnolia trees often live eighty years or more. What a legacy to leave to your grandchildren and their grandchildren.

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