CAERHAYS CASTLE, CORNWALL: CLOSE UP PLANT PORTRAIT OF THE YELLOW FLOWERS OF MAGNOLIA 'ELIZABETH' IN THE WOODLAND. SPRING, SHADE, APRIL, TREE, PETALS

The best yellow magnolias for gardens of all sizes

Magnolias are most commonly seen in shades of pink, purple and white. Grown for their flower colour, yellow magnolias can be an attractive alternative and their variable habit allows them to be grown in gardens of all sizes. Here you'll find growing advice for yellow magnolia trees and shrubs, the best magnolias to grow and where to buy them.

Yellow-coloured magnolias are less common than their pink cousins and come in shades from pale apricot to rich butter. Grown for their flower colour, their variable habit allows them to be grown in gardens of all sizes. Generally hardy throughout the UK, yellow-flowered magnolias are seen flowering in April, although some cultivars flower as early as March and some as late as May. The later ones flower with their foliage.

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Here we share some of the best yellow magnolias to grow for gardens of all sizes and tips for buying and growing them, plus some of the history behind the development of this unusual yellow variety.

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Many of the best yellow-flowered magnolias are from hybrids raised at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Possibly the best-known of these is Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ shown here. Photo by Clive Nichols

History of yellow-coloured magnolias

Walking along many suburban streets in March and April you will be wowed by the power of magnolias seen in shades of pink and purple as well as white. Almost certainly, these will be Magnolia soulangeana the hybrid created at the beginning of the 19th century by the Frenchman Étienne Soulange-Bodin. He crossed the yulan, Magnolia denudata, with the mu-lan, Magnolia liliiflora.

Fast forward to the 1950s. A team of women including Evamaria Sperber, Doris Stone and  Lola Koerting were carrying out hybridisation programmes at Brooklyn Botanic Garden using seed of the American Magnolia acuminata with pollen from the two Asiatic species used by Soulange-Bodin. They wanted to use their native species because it has yellow flowers (also green and blue), is exceptionally hardy, tolerant of many soil types and has a variable habit from a large shrub to a tree.

Growing conditions for magnolias

Magnolias of all persuasions like a moisture-retentive soil regardless of whether it’s acid or slightly alkaline. Most can be grown in full sun or part shade and are surprisingly tolerant of exposure. Those early flowering M. x soulangeana so often seen on suburban streets are generally best suited to suburbia, which tends to be a degree or two warmer than the surrounding countryside, but the yellows, which flower a few weeks later, are able to adapt to a wider range of climates making them even more impressive.

The best yellow magnolias

chosen by magnolia expert Jim Gardiner
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Magnolia ‘Butterflies’

One of the earliest yellow magnolias to flower. Flowers open in March before the foliage and are deep canary yellow. Once fully open, they are up to 13cm across and have prominent red stamens. 5m.

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Clockwise from top left

Magnolia ‘Judy Zuk’

A small, fastigiate tree raised by Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It’s tulip-shaped, apricot-yellow flowers appear with the unfurling foliage at the end of April and last for several weeks. These are flushed pink on the outside of the tepals and have a fruity fragrance. 5m.

Magnolia ‘Yellow Fever’

A small tree with an upright habit. Its large, pale-yellow flowers are flushed pink and appear before the foliage during April. The flowers have a sweet fragrance and over time fade to an ivory-cream colour. A hybrid with M. denudata. 5m. USDA 4a-8b.

Magnolia x brooklynensis ‘Yellow Bird’

A fast-growing, pyramidal, small tree with cup-shaped, yellow flowers. These open progressively from late April, for about a month, at the same time as the foliage, and on opening have a slight greenish tinge to the base of the tepals. 7m. USDA 4a-8b.

Magnolia ‘Golden Pond’

Raised in 1997 by David Leach in Ohio, this is a small, upright tree that is slow to establish but is eventually fast growing. It produces tulip-shaped, yellow flowers over several weeks both before and with the foliage during April. Needs a sunny site for best colour. 5m.

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Magnolia x brooklynensis ‘Hattie Carthan’

A large, multi-stemmed shrub with goblet-shaped flowers that have streaks of pink on the outside. These open with the foliage over several weeks from late April. Raised by Doris Stone at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. 5m. USDA 4a-8b.

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Clockwise from top left

Magnolia ‘Yellow Lantern’

Phil Savage bred this small, fastigiate tree with large, tulip-shaped, lemon-yellow flowers. These are flushed with pink at the base and appear before foliage in mid April then last for several weeks. Shows great promise as a street tree. 7m. RHS H6, USDA 4a-8b.

Magnolia ‘Lois’

An upright-growing, small tree with primrose-yellow flowers that open in mid April before the foliage. Flowers continue as the leaves unfurl over a five-week period and don’t fade. It needs space around it to be fully appreciated. 7m
RHS H6, USDA 4a-8b.

Magnolia ’Elizabeth’

A single or multi-stemmed small tree initially upright but ultimately round headed. Its primrose-yellow flowers, which when fully open are 20cm across, appear from early April before the leaves and flowers and last for about four weeks. 7m. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 5a-8b.

Magnolia ‘Gold Star’

A single or multi-stemmed small tree, upright to pyramidal in habit with pale-yellow flowers that fade to cream-coloured, star-like flowers with 14 tepals. Flowers open in late March before the burnt-red leaves that eventually fade to green. 5m. RHS H6, USDA 5a-8b.

Tips for buying and growing magnolias

  • Most of the magnolias you’re likely to buy from a nursery or garden centre will have been grown as shrubs in five-to ten-litre pots, although you can find some trees and larger specimens in containers up to 20 litres in size.
  • The most important thing when choosing a tree is to look for a vigorous specimen that is showing evidence of new growth.
  • A pot-bound tree will take at least a year longer to establish.
  • Magnolias are best grown in a moisture-retentive, but not waterlogged, soil that can be either acidic or mildly alkaline.
  • If you’re planting into a heavy clay soil, then add some quarried grit and organic matter to open up the soil structure.
  • The ideal time to plant your magnolia is in autumn while soil temperatures are high, but you can plant at most times of the year except during drought periods of high summer.
  • Always water well during the first year to establish the tree.
  • If you’re planting a larger specimen or planting in an exposed location, use a low stake to secure the tree.
  • Check the tree tie periodically and loosen if necessary and remove the stake after two to three years.

Where to see and buy

Arboretum Wespelaar, Grote Baan, 63-B 3150, Haacht-Wespelaar, Belgium. Tel +32 (0)1660 8641, arboretumwespelaar.be

Ashwood Nurseries, Ashwood Lower Lane, Ashwood, Kingswinford, West Midlands DY6 0AE. Tel 01384 401996, ashwoodnurseries.com

Borde Hill Garden, Haywards Heath, West Sussex RH16 1XP. Tel 01444 450326, bordehill.co.uk

Burncoose Nurseries, Gwennap, Redruth, Cornwall TR16 6BJ. Tel 01209 860316, burncoose.co.uk

Caerhays Castle, Gorran, St Austell, Cornwall PL26 6LY. Tel 01872 501310, caerhays.co.uk

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RHS Garden, Wisley, Woking, Surrey GU23 6QB. Tel 01483 224234, rhs.org.uk