I LIKE WHEN PLANTS MAKE ME do a double-take. The enormous weeping beeches at the Vanderbilt Estate, an entire field ablaze with sulfurous dandelions and the giant witches broom in a white pine along a central New York road all had me putting on the brakes for a prolonged investigation. So last week when a small front yard tree in Rensselaer appeared to be filled with yellow canaries, I came to a complete stop, then rejoiced over a yellow magnolia.
Afterward, I rather sheepishly decided that I shouldn’t have been so surprised, since I have a yellow magnolia in my front yard, too. While such a thing might seem like a horticultural myth, akin to a truly blue rose or lawn grass which stays green but doesn’t need mowing, the real story goes back to 1977, when the Brooklyn Botanical Garden (BBG) patented what is generally acknowledged to be the first yellow magnolia, a hybrid called ‘Elizabeth.’
I saw a plant of ‘Elizabeth’ for the first time in the early 1990s, when it was truly rare, at BBG’s Kitchawan Research Center in Westchester County, and I vowed that someday I would have a tree of my own. The woman behind the tree, Elizabeth Van Brunt, was a friend and benefactor of the BBG who donated the Kitchawan site for the research facility.
‘Elizabeth’ (the tree, mind you) came about as a cross of parents from two continents. Cucumbertree magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) is a hardy to Zone 4 native, growing quickly to 50 feet or more and having yellowish-green, slightly fragrant flowers. The Yulan magnolia (M. denudata) hails from central China, grows to perhaps 40 feet, and has white, fragrant flowers. Both are fairly site-tolerant once established, but like many other magnolias, they can be a bit touchy about transplanting. While I can’t tell you which was the father (pollen parent) and which was the mother (ovary parent), how many other offspring were produced or what the two had for dinner the night before, we do know that ‘Elizabeth’ was selected as something special.
With a neat pyramidal habit and an eventual height of perhaps 50 feet, she produces beautifully tapering buds of pale yellow, which open before the leaves begin to gain any size, showing off her blossoms nicely. Today, ‘Elizabeth’ is established in the nursery trade and can adapt to making a home almost anywhere, growing successfully from Maine to Florida.
Success breeds many imitators, and the floodgates have released newer yellow magnolias, some perhaps better than stately ‘Elizabeth.’ At least 10 have the word “gold” in their name (‘Gold Cup,’ ‘Goldfinch,’ ‘Golden Endurance’) and of course there are ‘Sundance,’ ‘Sunburst’ and ‘Solar Flare.’ Many produce deeper yellow flower than ‘Elizabeth’ and are truly magnificent in flower. Which leads me to my own tree. Last year it had one single bloom. This year it sported at least 50 bright yellow, highly fragrant blossoms. Not ‘Elizabeth,’ but who? Too bad I lost the tag.