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Garden Talk

Saucer magnolia in bloom in the Terrace Gardens

Horticultural Highlight: 'Alexandrina' saucer magnolia

In this series, the staff of Duke Gardens highlights plants you’ll find within our 55-acre living collection. This week, marketing and communications assistant Katherine Hale discusses a colorful tree with an equally colorful history.

Botanical name: Magnolia × soulangeana 'Alexandrina'
Common name: saucer magnolia
Family name: Magnoliaceae (Magnolia Family)
Native range: Cultivated origin
Location in Duke Gardens: Historic Gardens
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5-8

Closeup of saucer magnolia flower

With fossil evidence stretching back as far as 95 million years ago, magnolias are one of the oldest lineages of flowering plants. In contrast, the saucer magnolia (Magnolia × soulangeana) is a relative newcomer on the scene, dating back to the early 19th century. Despite only two centuries to its name, it makes up for lost time with its unusual and exciting history.

Saucer magnolia was first grown on the country estate of 19th century French horticulturalist Étienne Soulange-Bodin, who brought it to the attention of the general public in 1826. They are the botanical blend of two different Asian magnolias: the Yulan magnolia (M. denudata), and the lily magnolia (M. liliiflora), both of which are native to China. While the original species are highly attractive in their own right—as a quick walk through the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum’s magnolia collection will demonstrate—the hybrid has rapidly outpaced its parents to become one of the most common deciduous magnolias in cultivation.

‘Alexandrina’ is one of the oldest cultivars of saucer magnolia, first introduced in France in 1831, and remaining popular to this day due to its showy, early blooming flowers. Visitors to the Terrace Gardens are greeted by a pair of mature ‘Alexandrina’  saucer magnolias that flank the rows of annual beds adjacent to the koi pond, which are especially noteworthy in late February and early March. Long before the trees leaf out, their canopy is filled with a purple haze as the large fuzzy buds gradually unfold to reveal pink and lavender flowers with a pale center, the size and shape of their namesake saucer.

As a consequence of its unusual bloom time, the saucer magnolia display is acutely vulnerable to frost. While the trees themselves are cold-hardy, a hard frost after the flowers emerge will transform the canopy overnight from a vibrant purple to a dull brown. Fortunately for everyone, the varied magnolias in Duke Gardens' collection means that visitors are likely to enjoy the blooms no matter how the weather fluctuates in the short term.

More Garden Talk highlights

Photos from top to bottom: 'Alexandrina' saucer magnolia in the Terrace Gardens, by Cathi Bodine; close-up of a saucer magnolia flower, by Clarence Burke; and a canopy of saucer magnolia blooms, by Sue Lannon. 

Saucer magnolia flowers in the Terrace Gardens