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Gardening with Gael - Something’s eating my magnolias


Magnolia-460-913‘Gael,’ says my Facebook page in that personally obsequious way it has, ‘we care about the memories that you share,’(a questionable sentiment). ‘We thought you’d like to look back on this post from one year ago.’ There, on the page, was a group of photos of my magnolias from last year.

They looked splendid – masses of sumptuous flowers on every tree. It suddenly occurred to me that so far I hadn’t seen a single blossom on the bank opposite the house at the Block, which features a variety of magnolias ranging from the pink through to vermillion. The Magnolia stellatas, which circle the base of the hill, flowered as usual. The magnolias on the eastern hillside bloomed normally as well, however absolutely none on the well-established trees.

“Well not absolutely none,” said Box as I voiced my despair. “If you look at the top left corner of the biggest one there is one flower.”

Magnolias in my experience have been a joy to plant. They enjoy a deeply worked, moisture retentive, slightly acid soil. Year after year with minimal care, just a bit of fertiliser and some mulch, they flower prolifically. Every garden I have had they are always one of the first plants I establish.

Opposite the lounge at the cottages a magnolia Vulcan heralds the spring every year with brilliant magenta blooms and open cup flowers. The first flowers are huge and if I have remembered to feed it the size and quantity of flowers is noticeable. 
Until now I believed magnolias to be relatively pest free. I Googled ‘What eats magnolia flowers?’ It would appear I am not the first to ask this. Deer and squirrels apparently, and the Chinese use the flower as a cure for sinus. Clearly these suggestions are not applicable here.

“Possums,” said Marg, “I bet it’s the possums. They can’t get your roses so now they are having a go at the magnolias.” I peered at the tree. I doubt possums would access the fragile ends of the branches which hold the flowers. There are snail trails on some of the twigs but I doubt they are the cause. On close inspection the buds appear to be snapped off.

Magnolias existed around a hundred million years ago, before bees. They are pollinated by beetles. Usually the beetles or weevils nibble away at the edges of the petals, pollinating them as they go. Could it be a beetle eating my magnolia flowers? One article I read implied that some insects, weevils and leaf miners, live in the debris under the tree. This is the very debris that also conserves the moisture.

Fortunately the stellatas weren’t affected. A more compact, quite twiggy bush, the petals of the stellata are finger shaped and the overall effect of the flower resembles a star. I spotted one today called Magnolia stellata ‘Jane Platt’. Looking at the blooms they appear to have at least a double row of petals and maybe a triple row, giving the flower a particularly frilled appearance. Highly desirable. The flowers start out pink and fade to white. A compact shrub, it could fit into any garden.

As I looked back at my bare magnolias, searching for signs of leaves I noticed a rosella. An avaricious bird, I know it can cause damage among fruit trees. Could it be the culprit? This year I have to be content with my photos. Next year I will be watching carefully on behalf of the new owners.

Year after year with minimal care, magnolias normally flower prolifically.

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