Northwest: Star Magnolia

Kenwood, California, Zone 9

Oh, the blessed climate of California, where frost rarely if ever threatens the magnolia blossoms. The month of March is benign, coming in like a lamb and going out like a puppy—not at all like my hometown in Pennsylvania, where the brown, frost-ravaged flowers of Magnolia xsoulangeana are a tragic but familiar sight. On a sunny day in my first spring as a California resident, I was walking around the neighborhood, trying to learn the names of the many plants that were new to me. I turned a corner and saw for the first time a star magnolia (M. stellata) in full bloom. I was astonished at its beauty.

Like M. xsoulangeana, M. stellata opens its white flowers before its leaves. The last of its large, fuzzy bud cases pop open just as the leaves are unfurling. The flowers are a marvel, with anywhere from 12 to 18 petals … or are they sepals? I study the blossom more closely and can’t really tell. At any rate, each pure white flower is about four inches across, and the narrow, straplike petals (or sepals) are soft and slightly floppy— looking as if the sculptor Claes Oldenburg had fashioned myriad miniature stars and attached them to a handsome, compact tree.

If any tree deserves to be featured as a specimen in the garden, it’s this one. A tall, dark, and handsome laurel hedge provides the backdrop for this star of my March garden. I have pruned it to a single trunk and limbed it up for the first four feet, revealing the sturdy wood of this 15-foot-tall tree. In autumn, the leaves turn a rich ochre and bronzy yellow. All winter, hundreds of plump, fuzzy flower buds promise glories to come.

Since M. stellata has such distinctive flowers, it bothers me that I can’t tell whether they’re formed of petals or sepals, and so I turn to my well-worn copy of Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs (Timber Press, 1997). Dirr says they’re neither petals (which make up the corolla) nor sepals (the modified leaves that make up the calyx), but tepals. Tepals? That’s not a word you hear often, but it’s one that botanists use all the time. They’re actually not all that unusual. For example, what we think of as tulip petals are in fact tepals (indeed, this is true for the blooms of a great many flowering bulbs). So, look closely the next time you see a flower—if the calyx and corolla are not clearly differentiated, you may not be looking at petals or sepals. When you just can’t figure out which is which, you’ve got tepals. Like the flowers of my Magnolia stellata. I’ve never had a more beautiful botany lesson.

Worth Growing: Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’
Rosemary is so at home in California’s climate that it’s used to border parking lots, stabilize banks, and mix with natives and succulents in xeriscapes. The dwarf form ‘Prostratus’ grows to only two feet tall and spreads in four- to eight-foot circles, trailing over walls and down slopes. It makes foamy mounds of tiny lavender-blue flowers in winter and early spring. It’s deerproof, drought tolerant takes baking sun and foggy cold, and is happy anywhere but in wet soggy soil. Hardy in USDA Zone 8 and above. 

To Do in the Garden: Early Spring

  • Clean beds of winter detritus. Divide clumping perennials, like pul-monarias, daylilies, and ornamental grasses.

  • Start tomato seedlings in small paper cups with drainage holes. Repot into ever-larger cups several times over the next eight weeks, burying the stem to the top rosettes of leaves each time. Seedlings will be ready to plant out in early May.

  • Mark annual wildflowers of unique size or interest and gather seed when ripe. Allow seed to dry completely, store in an envelope, and sow in beds or meadows in the fall.

  • Dig fall-made compost into garden beds. Begin a spring compost pile for use in the summer.

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