Starring tree of the 'Spring Flower Show'

By Susan Silverman ©2016
Penn State Master Gardener

My car should have a bumper sticker that warns: “I Brake for Trees.” Last spring, I couldn’t help but stop and stare when I spotted a white flowered show-stopper that I later learned was a star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). Soon I had one of my own.

Royal Star Magnolia

‘Royal Star,’ the most popular cultivar, is deciduous perfection. This small tree is very slow-growing and after a long childhood, reaches a mature height of 15 feet with a 10- to 12-foot width. It can fit comfortably into most landscapes, but it certainly deserves a focal spot for the magnificent show it puts on in spring, when it is one of the first trees to flower.


Its fuzzy buds began to open in mid- to late March and  can last several weeks. It is like a singer hitting a high note and holding it longer than anyone’s expectations. When the song ends, all you can do is applaud.

All in the Name

The star magnolia gets its name from blossoms resembling clusters of stars. Before these stunning white flowers emerge, the branches are covered with fuzzy, elliptical buds that break open to reveal 3- to 4-inch flowers. The flowers totally cover the tree and are produced at a very young age.

Star Magnolia

‘Royal Star’ will thrive in our acidic, clay soil as long as there is good drainage. It resents standing in water, and will succumb under these conditions. Plant it in full sun or partial shade, and if possible, place it where it can be seen from inside your home.

The only thing that hinders a great spring show is frost, which can turn its beautiful flowers brown in one night. For this reason, try planting the tree in a protected spot, away from the winds and extreme cold.

Seasonal Interest

Many trees will put on a spectacular spring showing, but cannot hold on to center stage after that time. Not this one. It is truly a tree for all seasons. Even if the display is ruined by frost, this tree has other “star” qualities.

There is beauty in its multi-trunked form. Each branch reaches up and out to produce a lovely oval canopy. If you wish to prune this specimen for size or shape, be aware that magnolias are bleeders and the fluid that is released from these cuts can attract insects and lead to disease. There is some controversy as to when pruning should be done, either during dormant season, which risks the loss of buds, or in late summer before bud formation.

Star Magnolia blossom

In summer, the smooth gray silvery bark is adorned with jade green leaves that have a glossy sheen. These leaves turn bronze and fall once the autumn temperatures and chilling frosts begin. At this point, the lovely multi-stemmed framework is revealed and the buds that have emerged on the branches bear the promise of the beauty to come. When winter arrives and the tree is cloaked in snow, it still radiates elegance.

This is truly a specimen worthy of a place in the landscape. It has visual interest throughout the seasons and a size that makes it a good fit in most landscapes. When it flowers, your neighbors will brake for your tree.


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