Snowbells and Other Summer Flowers

Snowbells and Other Summer Flowers

Where has summer gone? I am sure that I am not the only person asking that question after those blistering hot days that now seem like a memory of last summer rather than this one.

As we approach the longest day our gardens are running at full speed ahead and as well as the roses and herbaceous plants doing their stuff there are some superb flowering trees. You might not see them in every garden but if you have space they are worth seeking out or if you don’t have room then go and see them at a garden or arboretum while they last.

My premier choice of summer flowering tree is Magnolia obovata (syn hypoleuca) which is an extremely handsome and graceful tree which hails from Japan. It grows in moist soils in and at the edge of woodland. The young shoots have a purplish tinge when they emerge and the very large leaves are held at the end of the shoots. It is a tree worth growing for the leaves alone but the real wow are the flowers which are large; up to 20cm across; creamy white with a central boss of Crimson stamens and very fragrant. The smell is like a mixture of honey and gardenias and on a still evening with a little warmth and moisture the scent can carry a great distance.

Magnolia obovata

Magnolia obovata

Japan and Korea are also host to another stunning summer Magnolia. Magnolia sieboldii which is more of a spreading shrub that produces nodding white flowers like an upturned teacup.  The flowers can appear from May to August though it depends on the summer but the fruit clusters which are bright red are spectacular.

If I have chosen two magnolias from Asia then I have to choose one from America though not just for balance. Magnolia macrophylla would make it onto anybody’s top ten list. Coming from the south eastern USA  it has perhaps the largest leaves of any deciduous plant that is hardy in the UK.  These leaves can often exceed two feet in length, are somewhat glaucous beneath and need a little protection from the wind as they can tear. The flowers are like upright white candles marked with purple at the base and carry a spicy fragrance.

Stewartia is a genus of trees which produce camellia like flowers in summer. They prefer acid soil and although they like their tops in the sun they like their roots in the shade. Individually the flowers last only a short time, falling like snow beneath the tree. The flowers are produced in succession giving a longevity of interest. Added to which the autumn colour can be spectacular and the bark which flakes in an interesting pattern gives winter interest. This is a good all rounder for many gardens. S. pseudocamellia is usually the one that is encountered by most visitors to the nursery or garden centre and is perhaps the best for general planting though if you come across the Koreana Group then you should buy it as it is an improvement over the straight species in many ways.

Whereas Stewartia is not fragrant, Styrax japonicus is exceptionally fragrant small tree which often has a semi pendant habit adding an extra element of grace. Not that this plant needs too much help to look graceful. The clusters of bell shaped white flowers with prominent yellow anthers which hang on the underside of the branches are dainty and the tree is hardy. It is best planted where it can be admired close up or better still where you can look up into the flowers.  There are a number of purple leaved cultivars which can be found at the more specialist nurseries including ‘Purple Dress’. The flowers on many of these are tinged pink which only adds to their charm.

Styrax japonicus

Styrax japonicus

Finally, spare a thought for those opening their gardens for the NGS. The yellow book scheme raises huge amounts of money for very worthwhile charities and the gardeners who open their gardens work very hard. Whatever the weather I would urge anybody to go out and support a garden which is open for charity. Indeed a visit in adverse weather can be extremely instructive as the better the garden the better it stands up to scrutiny even in the rain.

You might even encounter some of these wonderful summer flowering trees.

Ross Underwood