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April 2014

Magnificent Magnolias & Flowering Cherries

Some of the most magnificent trees bloom in late April and early May on the East Coast. What can be more beautiful than a magnolia or flowering cherry flaunting resplendence, tossing great limbs of hot and pale pink, buttery yellow and ivory against a bright blue sky?

And from a practical standpoint, really, what can be easier to grow? They are deer-resistant, magnolias more so, they both tolerate a range of soil conditions and exposure and once established, they require little fertilizer and watering. Late frosts wrecking blossoms is probably the main problem.

John Morse, Manager of Horticulture, Morris County Park Commission in New Jersey, tells all you need to know to grow great magnolias and cherry trees.

Morse is based in Willowwood Arboretum, Far Hills, NJ, where he is responsible for the layout and management of gardens and plant collections at Willowwood, Frelinghuysen Arboretum, and Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center. Magnolias and cherries are among the arboreta’s special collections to which cultivars are added and evaluated as good subjects for home gardeners.

Betting blossoms against a late frost ~
John Morse tells how to tip the scale on our side:
1. “Many newer cultivars being introduced are bred for a little later flowering. They are not as precocious as Star and Saucer Magnolias. Even if they bloom one week later, it can mean the difference between a beautiful display and brown mush. The breeding is led by American breeders because it is an American problem growing magnolias on the East Coast and in the Midwest where they are prone to capricious spring temperatures.
2. “Star Magnolia is more resistant to frost damage than Saucer Magnolia. The Saucer’s thicker, fleshier petal holds more water than the thinner Star petal. We see that at Willowwood. With a light frost, the Star will basically be fine and the Saucer will have that brown, wasted look.
3. “Situate magnolias in a colder location. A north-facing slope with good air circulation is better than the south side of a building. Place them in any micro-climate where it’s cooler to slow them down. Even a couple days might be all you need to get them through that late spring frost. Experience shows you can slow them down a bit. Avoid warm spots that heat up quickly. They also cool off quickly especially on cold, clear nights.”

What Magnolias like:
Soil: Fertile, well-drained, not water-logged. After a heavy rain, puddles should not remain for more than a day. Our slightly acidic, well-drained soil is ideal.
Exposure: Morning or afternoon sun or a gap in the canopy because they are an understory or edge tree in natural habitat, and they’ll have some protection against a late spring frost.
Fertilizer: “When we renovate a bed, we analyze the soil and do a la carte adjustments and that’s good for five or eight years.”
Water: “We plant in spring, give them water and mulch and monitor them. For the first year, we closely monitor them. We check them on a weekly basis. During the heat of summer, if it’s really hot, we water once a week or it might be more. If a tree is in a three gallon pot, even if it’s planted in the ground, its roots are still in a three gallon pot.”
Pruning: Basic pruning. Remove dead, crossing and rubbing branches and gentle shaping. “I like to prune in late March/early April just before growth begins when I can see the branches. March is a great time to get out into the garden and start looking at things and a great time to prune.”
Pests and Diseases: Magnolia scale which is uncommon, and powdery mildew in late summer, which is just cosmetic.
Special: Magnolias are deer-resistant because of their strong aromatic taste or scent.

The luscious cherry is another great spring-blooming tree for the region. “I like cherries. They’re really tough and well adapted to our climate and soil and they’ll grow just about everywhere,” Morse says. We put them in the ground, water them and monitor them for the first year, then not too much attention. They are really adapted to our conditions.”

Many ornamental cherries are from regions in Japan and China with climates similar to the East Coast. “They are quick to grow and quick to get established. It’s rewarding,” Morse says.

What cherries like:
Soil: They are well adapted to average, good, well-drained soil, no standing water and not necessarily fertile. No amendments necessary.
Exposure: Half day sun or more. Full sun is great.
Fertilizer: Minimal. Once established, rarely.
Water: Tough plants. Monitor for the first year. Once established they are relatively tolerant of periodic summer drought.
Pruning: Basic pruning. Remove dead, crossing and rubbing branches. Some cherries bought at a nursery have branches that all come from one point – like a dandelion flower. “This can be problematic later in the tree’s life. When young, thin to emphasize a good branching structure.”
Pests and Diseases: Minimal.
Special: They are moderately deer-resistant and will grow anywhere!

Check out what’s blooming at:
Willowwood Arboretum: www.willowwoodarboretum.org/
Frelinghuysen Arboretum: www.arboretumfriends.org/
Laurelwood Arboretum: www.laurelwoodarboretum.org/

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