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Plant of the Month: December 2009

Yellow Lily-Tree
Magnolia Ernestii Figlar 2000
= Michelia Wilsonii Finet & Gangep. 1906
= Michelia sinensis Hemsl. & Wils. 1906
= Michelia szechuanica Dandy 1928
MAGNOLIACEÆ; Magnolia Family

Of many east Asian broadleaf evergreen trees and shrubs in the Magnolia genus, this tree --very little known in the West-- has demonstrated exceptional cold hardiness and rapidity of growth in the Pacific Northwest. This, despite the fact that most of its kin prefer hotter summers than the maritime Northwest affords.
    Native in moist forests of mountainous Western China (Guizhou, SW Hubei, Jiangxi, C and W Sichuan, SE Yunnan), it was not tested in North America until 1993, when specimens were offered by the wholesale nursery Piroche Plants, of Pitt Meadows, British Columbia. The name Yellow Lily-Tree was used by Piroche. Later on, nurseries such as Heronswood (listed it 1999 to 2001), and Cistus, retailed specimens. (Possibly it was introduced to the U.S. in the 1980s, along with some other species, according to the book Magnolias by J.M. Gardiner 1989, page 130.)
    It was originally named, in 1906, Michelia Wilsonii. In 1753, the genus Michelia had been named by Linnæus to commemorate the Florentine botanist Pier Antonio Micheli (1679 - 1737). Some 40 to 80 Michelia species exist, all in tropical and subtropical SE Asia, India or Sri Lanka (Ceylon). They are all broadleaf evergreen shrubs (rarely) or trees (mostly). However, the genus is related so closely to Magnolia, that the two genera have been combined --or "lumped."
    Since in 1913 a deciduous Magnolia had been named Magnolia Wilsonii, when in 2000 Michelia Wilsonii was transferred to the genus Magnolia, it needed a new specific name. The scientist who made the transfer, Dick Figlar, is recognized as the most learned Magnolia taxonomist alive. Figlar wanted the species to continue to commemorate Ernest Henry Wilson (1876 - 1930), so made it Magnolia Ernestii. Accordingly, one genus has two species both named after the same individual. Wilson was an accomplished plant collector (1,200 species of trees and shrubs for Western cultivation!), having visited China four times, and he first collected this species named after him. Wilson was also an educator, and superb writer. Here is a sample of his writing:

    "Aristocrats of anicient lineage possessed of many superlative qualities are the Magnolias. They have the largest flowers and the largest undivided leaves of any group of trees hardy in northeastern North America. No other genus of hardy or half-hardy trees and shrubs can boast so many excellencies. Their free-flowering character and great beauty of blossom and foliage are equalled by the ease with which they may be cultivated.
    All Magnolias grow naturally in moist rich woods and they detest drought. They withstand considerable hardships and abuse but the best results are obtained when they are protected from strong winds and are planted in a cool deep soil rich in humus. An ideal place is an open woodland where they suffer less from the inclemency of spring." (Aristocrats of the Trees, 1930; page 120.)

    Wilson's prose combines dispassionate facts, many gathered by his own extensive observation, with tempered enthusiasm and evocative language, that at once informs and inspires --just like perfect food that at once nourishes and delights the taste buds. Near the end of his book More Aristocrats of the Garden (1928), he wrote:

    "A man must have two separate sides to his head and sufficient [leisure] to healthily occupy his mind and body when his ordinary business in life draws to a close. Long ago, gardening was acclaimed the greatest of human pleasures, the greatest refreshment to the spirit of man. And those who plant a garden, best know this wisdom. To get closely in touch with nature, to watch the procession of seasons, to note how change, wondrous change, proceeds, and how natural laws govern the bursting of bud, unfolding of flower and ripening of fruit is wholesome and leaves no time for ennui. To plant some flower and watch it develop to perfection is a facinating pastime. Moreover, it is creative and rich in object lessons to youth and maturity. As nations come to cultivate, love of the beautiful prevails. There is nothing more beautiful than a flower and no flower so sweet as that raised by our efforts in our own garden, be it never so small."

    The tree has profuse, elegant, dark shiny green foliage. An individual leaf can measure as much as 7.5 inches long, by 2 and five-eighths inches wide. The branches are in horizontal tiers of flattened foliage. The flowers, borne sometime between March and May, are varying shades of soft yellow or just white, and not especially ornamental or conspicuous --yet are sweetly fragrant. It is reported that "Bark and flowers are used in traditional Chinese medicine." (Piroche Plants catalog)
    To me, the Yellow Lily-Tree is not as valuable an ornamental tree as its North American cousins the evergreen Sweet Bay (Magnolia virginiana var. australis), or the Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). However, my job is not only to promote the best, but to report on All trees that are newly tested in cultivation. The exact prompting for this article, at this time, is that one of the largest reported cultivated specimens of Magnolia Ernestii (photo below) may get bulldozed in the near future. It is at a 1.5 acre garden in Bellevue, Washington, and measures 36.5 feet tall; 2 feet 9 inches in trunk circumference.
    Other than that tree, I measured one 34 feet tall at the former Heronswood Nursery near Kingston, Washington (#200911); one 23 feet tall at the University of Washington, south of Allen Library; one 22 feet tall (#28-08A) at Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle; one 21 feet tall also there (#25-98A). The Lam Asian Garden at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden has a big specimen that was reported at nearly 16 meters (52.5 feet) tall in October 2006; it had been planted in 1995. In the wild, according to the Flora of China, it can attain 20 meters (65.5 feet) or even 25 meters (82 feet) in its subsp. szechuanica.
    At present, mail-order nursery sources for this tree include: Greer Gardens (www.greergardens.com) Lee's Tropical Plants (www.leestropicals.com)

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Magnolia Ernestii

Magnolia Ernestii / Michelia Wilsonii; photo by ALJ




Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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