Magnolia stellata. Lovely star magnolia. What would we do without your spring floral splendor? Although the zone 5 appearance was fleeting this year, the blossoms are always a joy to behold. The fragrance, delicious.

This is becoming such an unusual year that I, somewhat religiously, take my coffee for a walk in the morning, rain or shine, to see what Momma Nature has given and taken away overnight. The other morning, as my coffee and I were enjoying our morning stroll, I was quite pleased to notice that my five-year old Magnolia stellata was sporting four open blossoms. The rest – about 40 or so – were still tight. It was truly an early spring, comfortably enjoyable “ahh” moment. Drank both it and my coffee in – then wandered to the neighbor’s place to help burn 20 acres of prairie. What a glorious start to the day, a bit of beauty and a bit of fire. Imagine my surprise when I got back – every one of the mag blossoms was out and in full glory. And like almost every other flowering plant so far this year, finished way too quickly. Unbelievable how early and fast the blooms burst, about 6 weeks ahead of the norm and only lasted a few days. Me thinks that this will make for a rather bland mid-summer bloom show. Better start thinking about which annuals to get…

Magnolia stellata, when hardy for the zone to be grown in, are quite an easy and satisfying landscape buddy. They really don’t require much from the human sector other than consistent structural training, a decent setting, and a bit of appreciation. The pruning needed is pretty basic, if you start training early on. Once it develops good structure and branching habits – only a light pruning is needed every year or two. Prune (as with many early spring flowering plants) right after blooming. Don’t wait too long or you’ll be removing next year’s flower buds. Siting magnolias requires a bit of protection this far north. Too much sun, and heat, increases the risk of the buds and/or flowers developing too early in the season. If that happens, our late spring cold zaps will wreak havoc on the buds and flowers – which are not extremely cold tolerant. The buds, if zapped, will fail to develop properly while the flowers will go from vibrantly beautiful petals to brown and gooey in short order. Will that matter in the long run? Not if it only happens once in a while. Magnolia stellata is tough enough for the overall health to rebound fantastically. But let’s be honest – we do grow it for the flowers. Any loss means waiting an entire year for the next show.

What constitutes good siting? Full sun is best for maximum flowering. But do avoid unprotected, full exposure southern sites to minimize the afore-mentioned damage resulting from that early season warming followed by cold temps and cold, wicked winds. Partial shade does not seem to greatly affect the flowering. All recommendations are for slightly acidic, moist soils – which we don’t generally have. And although I have not noticed a fast, dramatic decrease in health and vigor when sited in our higher pH soils, periodic applications of some lovely peat or compost appear beneficial. When in a consistently dry site, growth slows to a virtual standstill. Adequate soil moisture is essential for good growth – be kind with the hose when Magnolia stellata are young. Deep, infrequent watering to the equivalent of 2″ rainfall per week is best for young trees, equivalent of 1″ rainfall per week for mature trees.

Verticillium wilt and scale are the most common Magnolia problems in zone 5. Verticillium is commonly found in the soils just about everywhere in this area. Be aware of the potential for problems and you won’t be shocked if it infects your tree. Disappointed maybe. Symptoms typically appear mid-July or so. Should that stop you from giving them a whirl – nah. It’s certainly not enough to make me stop planting Magnolia stellata. Does Verticillium have the potential to take them out? It can. Or it can just knock them around a bit. Severity varies, but it doesn’t go away. If severely infected, you may end up removing the tree as it tends to look rather ragged, fairly quickly.

Scale is an interesting issue on Magnolias. Seems to run to extremes. Either you have a big problem or you don’t. Often, the horrible end of the infestation spectrum can be attributed to some additional pressures on the tree – winter lighting and/or intense insecticide use. Normally we only have one generation per year this far north. Warmer environmental temps and additional heat and light from non-LED winter lighting may encourage the development of an extra generation per year. As one would expect, more unchecked critters does mean more potential damage. Insecticide use can throw the predator/prey system dramatically off balance as insecticides are made to kill all insects within a targeted spectrum. There is no judgment built into the products. Both problematic and beneficial will be affected. When beneficial insects that prey on scale are reduced, the ability to naturally keep the scale numbers (and damage) in check will also be reduced. This instance is no different than many others – a thoughtful and judicious approach is always a good idea. And controlling scale requires thoughtful, close attention to life cycle stages, appropriate product choices, and responsible application. If an infestation is heavy, expect to spend a few years getting it back under control. Patience and persistence will win the day.