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San Francisco Botanical Garden is a public/private partnership between San Francisco Botanical Garden Society and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.

Featured Plant

Magnolia stellata

Profile:

Scientific Name: Magnolia stellata

Common Names: star magnolia

Family: Magnoliaceae

Plant Type: Mound-form shrub or small tree

Environment: Full sun to part shade, best in moist, acidic, deep soils but is quite adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions, including pH, pollution, and wet soils

Bloom: White or light-pink, slightly fragrant flowers abundant in early spring; in the species the tepals are fully reflexed.

Uses: Showy winter-flowering tree or shrub as accent in garden

Other: Cultivars include: Magnolia stellata'Rosea', M. s. 'Waterlily', M. s. 'Jane Platt', M. s. 'Royal Star'

February

About

Magnolia stellata

Like most of the Garden's showy magnolias, the star magnolia withholds its much anticipated display until late winter when, still without leaves, the unique starburst-like flowers erupt on the stem tips for a spectacular yet ephemeral show. They are worth the wait. 

Some varieties of the star magnolia can have as many as 36 petals — appropriately called tepals — per flower or perhaps more. Ranging from white to pink, their singular flower form makes them completely distinguishable — their narrow, strap-like tepals with near parallel margins for much of their length easily set them off from other magnolia species. Instead of displaying colorful petals and smaller, green sepals backing them up, such as on the flower of a rose, the eye-catching appendages of magnolia flowers are all similarly-colored and near indistinguishable. Thus, botanists coined a new term to describe them all: tepals. 

As with the tulip, also a distinctive specimen of beauty, author Michael Pollan and The Botany of Desire may anthropomorphically posit that the magnolia has induced us — by endearing itself to us — to cultivate it, and by doing so ensure its survival. If this were possible, the star magnolia, by any metric, has succeeded. A species found today growing wild in only a small area on Honshu, the main island of Japan, the star magnolia has become known worldwide since collection and cultivation by Western botanists about 150 years ago. 

Magnolia stellata is a popular specimen tree for the home garden and thrives in the greater Bay Area. It can reach 15 to 20 feet tall and has medium water needs. Once established, it can thrive with a deep irrigation once or twice weekly. They are relatively pest-free and require little pruning. Exposure to full sun or part shade is preferred. 

Though the cultivated star magnolia appears "safe" in our horticultural hands, its collection has not come without risk. There are only up to five native populations left in central Japan and Magnolia stellata is currently registered as an endangered species in the wild. These few remaining populations are decreasing in size due to both land development and illegal collecting for horticultural purposes. As of 2015, no conservation strategy has been developed for this extraordinary species.

IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Corey Barnes. Profile by Mona Bourell. Photos by Joanne Taylor, Mona Bourell, David Kruse-Pickler, Steve Gensler, and James Gaither.

ARCHIVES: IN-BLOOM