Getting Dirty in Your Garden Extension Master Gardener Radio Show and Podcast-Interview of Cheryl Kearns-Magnolia Society International

— Written By Lisa Sanderson
Cheryl Kearns is involved with the Magnolia Society International - photo by

Cheryl Kearns is involved with the Magnolia Society International – photo provided by Cheryl Kearns.

Charles Murphy interviews Cheryl Kearns, Editor of both the newsletter and the Journal for the Magnolia Society International. Learn more about the society through their conversation.

TRANSCRIPT

JOHNSON

This is Getting Dirty in Your Garden brought to you by NC State Extension Master Gardener Volunteers. I’m your host, Harold Johnson, and I’m a Master Gardener in Durham County.

JOHNSON

In this edition of Getting Dirty In Your Garden, Charles Murphy talks with Cheryl Kearns about a tree familiar to us in North Carolina, magnolia. When you heard the word “magnolia”, what image popped into your mind? For most of you it was probably the Southern Magnolia with a large leaf, white flower and red seeds.

Charles and Cheryl met and talked in an environment that was often a bit noisy for optimum recording. As you listen, we hope you’ll consider the extraneous sounds as simply adding character to your experience.

Please enjoy Charles and Cheryl talking about “The Magnolia Society International,” an organization devoted to the appreciation and study of magnolias, a species far more diverse and hardy than you realize.

MURPHY

Hello again, this is Charles Murphy, North Carolina Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Durham County and I’m here today at the North Carolina Museum of Art with Cheryl Kearns, who is involved with the International Magnolia Society. She is the editor of the newspaper, newsletter, I should say, and editor of the journal for that society. She’s going to educate us today about the society and what we can learn from it and how we could find out more about magnolias. Cheryl, I want to thank you very much for your time and for you coming out today. We really appreciate it.

KEARNS

You are very welcome.

MURPHY

Let me start off by asking just a few basic questions. The idea of International Magnolia Society was new to me. Could you tell us how this got underway and when and who was involved and this sort of thing?

KEARNS

It actually started out as an American society only. It did not become international until the mid 90’s. It was founded 53 years ago by a group of basically, growers, propagators who met at a national conference in St. Louis. A few of them were very interested in magnolias and although there were a lot of plant societies at the time, they thought that it would be advantageous to have one dedicated to magnolias. They were a little bit concerned about starting a whole new plant society and, in fact, they were discouraged by some of their colleagues, but they decided to just go ahead and do it. It took off, so it became international in 1997, I think, with Jim Gardiner becoming the first international president. Jim is associated with the Royal Horticultural Society and will soon be retiring from there, so I’m hoping I can get him to write some articles very soon, here. But because of his great enthusiasm in bringing England into the picture, he had started out with Hilliard’s Nursery and done a lot with building up their impressive magnolia collection, making it even more impressive and from there it spread on to the continent to where we have over 40 countries in our membership, represented in our membership, and about 700 people.

MURPHY

Over 40 countries and this is throughout Europe?

KEARNS

It’s all of Europe, Asia. We haven’t got members in Africa, but we have had inquiries from somebody who apparently was posted for, I’m not sure if it was diplomatic or if it was for a large business, but she inquired about growing magnolias in northern Africa. We have members in Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, Sweden, so we’re all over the world. Antarctica yes probably wouldn’t be able to grow magnolias.

MURPHY

That’s amazing! I had no idea that magnolias were that widespread, or the interest in them would be that wide, especially in some of the remoter locations, Iceland and Sweden.

KEARNS

Exactly. I’ve met some of the Iceland members. I think we only have a few. I don’t think we have more than 3 or 4, but I’ve met two of them at past conferences. We’ll be going to Sweden in May of 2017, for our annual meeting. One wouldn’t think of Sweden as a place to grow magnolias, nor Finland or Norway, but we have members there. We have a lot in Sweden. The fun thing that I’m looking forward to this is that we will be flying into Copenhagen, crossing the bridge into Sweden and our first few days of our meeting will be in Maalmo, Sweden and then we will fly to Uppsala, which they consider North, but in fact, it’s about halfway north of the whole country and it’s the furthest point, Uppsala, which they can really grow magnolias well. Then we will be going to Gothenburg and have a day in Stockholm. So we will be all over southern Sweden.

MURPHY

Of course, the United States is divided into climate zones by the USDA and where we are here in the Piedmont here is 7, some 7a and some 7b. Then either this suggests that either there are other places in northern Europe that are similar climate or there are varieties that are adapted to a harder climate.

KEARNS

Yes–very much so! One of the main breeders in the United States was actually amateur, extremely passionate, very schooled amateur named Dennis Ledvina. He worked out of Wisconsin, so a lot of the magnolias that he developed and the seed that he was using was Magnolia acuminata, which is one of the American natives that stands cold weather. A lot of his seedlings and seed bank went over to Europe and a lot of those people grow Dennis’ magnolias.

MURPHY

Okay, so there’s been an exchange now. Do seeds and plants come back in this direction as well?

KEARNS

Oh, absolutely! More Asian–right now there is a lot of breeding work going on in South Carolina, in particular by Kevin Parris at Spartanburg Community College and he is working a lot with the Asian magnolias. There isn’t a lot known about them on a wide population basis in the United States. They are evergreen. That have smaller leaves–at least they tend to have smaller leaves. They are fragrant. They tend to be a little smaller than our typical southern magnolia, so it’s a whole new wild, open world for magnolias that’s coming into possibilities.

MURPHY

Well, when you mention southern magnolias, that sort of has been, for years, my concept of the iconic magnolia tree in the front yard of the big house and that sort of thing–big and blooming beautifully in the spring and red seed pods. But there are obviously many more varieties than that.

KEARNS

Yes, yes–there are about 200, I think there’s around 230 named species at the moment. I know that they are working on two more in Mexico. They haven’t decided whether one is a variety of another or whether it’s a separate species, but right now they are doing DNA testing on it and think that it will be a separate species and then there is another magnolia, which they haven’t completely finished defining, which definitely will be another species. So it…magnolias, there’s a lot of research in China, Taiwan, East Asia, but also in South America. It used to be that the majority of our new magnolias would be coming from Asia, but now they are almost being outdone by the researchers in Mexico down through Colombia. There was one discovery in Peru that is extinct now. They’ve never been able to go back and find that one particular magnolia, so it—maybe somewhere, but it’s probably doubtful by now. And actually, ironically, some of them are hardy, even to our area. The Mexican magnolia actually is hardy here and there’s a man in Chapel Hill who is growing a Mexican magnolia, and growing and breeding, crossing with Mexican magnolia.

MURPHY

So he’s having success with that in this zone up here?

KEARNS

He is. And Camellia Forest is actually selling it.

MURPHY

I’ve heard of that nursery.

KEARNS

Yes.

MURPHY

That is very interesting. You were kind enough to send me a couple of copies of the journal and I was reading some of the articles in there and I was very impressed with a number of things. Number one, the photography is just beautiful. Number two: the articles were well written and all seemed to be professional. Is this a society of solely or primarily professional botanists or professional plant scientists or is it a mix?

KEARNS
No, it’s a mix. And I’m very glad you mentioned the photography because that’s something that I’ve been doing this for 5 1/2 years now and it was one of the goals that I had, that the board had to improve the images and the graphics in the journal. To answer your other question about professionalism. I think that’s one of the reasons that we are supposedly the only really fasting growing plant society at the moment. Because we have members who are passionate gardeners who’ve–that is not their main work and we have scientists who are doing PhD work, who are researchers. They are specialists in growing, plant research. We’ve had Dan Hinkley, for example, write an article for us about exploration he did in Vietnam and found one there, or found several, actually, but described a few. So actually I have had the honor in the journal of first-time descriptions of five magnolias and I’ve only been doing it 5 1/2 years. And it’s a huge honor to do this. I’m excited from it…

MURPHY

I would think so! Well it sounds like it’s a very active organization, then. [It is] People are either finding and or breeding new things very frequently.

KEARNS

Yes, yes! New Zealand breeders, for example, one of them is working with hedging material that’s evergreen and it’s–some people around here may know Banana Shrub? That’s a magnolia; it’s a Magnolia figo and that is one of the species that they are working with and making them–well, they are beautiful on their own, obviously, but they also make a nice hedge and I’ve seen pictures of them from New Zealand, making a hedge just absolutely gorgeous and they smell so wonderful when they’re in bloom, so that is one thing that magnolias can be used for so many different purposes.

MURPHY
Well, it sounds like it, so they are not all tree form, necessarily, a full-size tree form.

KEARNS

No, in 2004, I think it was, two leading world experts, Dick Figlar from South Carolina and Hans Nooteboom from the Netherlands actually lumped all of the magnolias and their sub-genera into one genus, magnolias, so now, for example, instead of buying a Michelia, you would buy Magnolia laevifolia, for example. So it broadens the scope that they are all proving genetically to be magnolia. So it has been the Asians, for whatever reason, are a little bit slower to accept that, but they, whenever I’ve asked them to write for the journal, and their English is wonderful compared to my Chinese (laughter) it’s great! They are willing to conform to our nomenclature standards so no problem.

MURPHY

Good! Very good! Well, another thing, of course, around here–at least in parts of the Piedmont, it’s not just the climate, itself, but the soil, which is not very friendly to a lot of plants. What about magnolias of some of these different varieties? How do they do around here?

KEARNS

You mean the exotics?

MURPHY

Yes, some of the more exotics.

KEARNS

They do fine. Most magnolias, a lot of magnolias are very shallow rooted, so they don’t need a whole depth of soil, and they do very well in clay as long as it’s amended. But they don’t like, with the exception of the Magnolia virginiana which is native to the United States. They do not like to sit in water. So as long as they have good drainage and other climatic conditions, cold and shade requirements are met, they are fine. So we really–we actually are at a really good location to grow magnolias from a lot of places in the world that you wouldn’t really expect, maybe? I have, in fact, I just was at a symposium at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum last weekend where a plant explorer had brought back a magnolia; I think it was from Vietnam. It was new, is one that isn’t even named yet. And so they think because of the altitude at which they found it, that it will grow for us. So they soil shouldn’t really effect that particular one. So I’m going to trial—there were two in the container as it turned out, so I will keep both of them in a cool greenhouse for the winter because evergreens want to be planted out in the spring. So after the soil warms up I will plant one of them out next year and I’ll be able to take some cuttings and pass them around to some of the local arboreta and some other public gardens that are growing magnolias and sharing.

MURPHY

Can you begin making cuttings fairly early in the tree’s life?

KEARNS

Yes, apparently so! This was very new to me and I noticed that the branching was very soft. The man’s name was Aaron Floden and Aaron told me “Take cuttings now, if you want to, especially if they are going to be in a cool greenhouse over the winter.” I’m giving them time to get their roots in the new pots that I put them in and yeah, I’ll take cuttings before winter sets in.

MURPHY

Well, it sounds as if it’s a very accommodating genus as a plant.

KEARNS

It is! It is!

MURPHY

Which is nice to hear. The other thing I think that’s interesting. You mentioned that one magnolia just a moment ago that is native to the United States. You know that. But the entire history of development of the new world of transportation back and forth between the new and the old, within the old world has been tied up with plants for thousands of years.

KEARNS

Millions.

MURPHY

And it’s good to see that it still goes on.

KEARNS

Well, magnolia was actually, as far as researchers can determine, magnolia is the first flowering plant that was ever in our evolutionary history. So they date back, apparently there’s been some carbon dating to about 100 million years, now, so they are dinosaur age plants, which is really quite fascinating. In the United States there were five native species. The rest have all come in from other parts of the world. It’s possible because of the shifts in the ice age and over time. It’s possible there were more at one time, but right now there are five.

MURPHY

That’s interesting! So let me ask you then, if I would like to see some magnolias, other than the one sort of in my mind, where are some places around here that I could go to see a variety?

KEARNS

Good question! There is a national plant consortium and the national plant consortium specializes in certain genera so there is a set of gardens all over the United States that do magnolias and the JC Raulston Arboretum is one of the members, so we have a good collection of magnolias. We share seed with other gardens, public gardens and public institutions that are collecting them. Mark Weathington, who is the director at the JC Raulston Arboretum, has actually been on a plant collecting trip to Taiwan, brought back Magnolia compressa, and I have one of those seedlings that he brought back and I was very pleased to get that in an auction (ha ha!). There is a great deal of exchange in that respect. Duke Gardens has a few; they have some beautiful old specimens, particularly of grandiflora, the southern magnolia. In terms of seeing them mature, I would say the Raulston Arboretum is probably the closest for the really good collection, but there are gardens all over the United States with magnolias featured. Missouri Botanic Garden, up to Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morten Arboretum where we have members. Of course, Striven of California—they are part of the collection group as well.

MURPHY

Well, that’s interesting! So if I wanted to take a trip to Raulston Gardens, I would see as good a variety as I would be likely to find in this area?

KEARNS

Absolutely! Yes, yes! I don’t know exactly how many species we have, but we have a very large number and if you get a chance to go to Plant Delight Nursery on his open houses which are 8 weekends a year, he has a really good collection, actually. When the Magnolia Society’s 2018 meeting will be in Raleigh, and so we will be going to Plant Delight’s Nursery and looking at his magnolias as well. So well worth joining the organization just for that!
MURPHY

Very nice! That’s very good! Suppose I want now, you’ve convinced me that they will do well here—I have a little spot in my front yard that so far isn’t full of something—it gets pretty good sunlight. What do I need to think of in terms of sunlight and shade?

KEARNS

It depends on the magnolia, but many of the magnolias actually do well in part shade, so give them morning sun, in fact some of the normal prefer to have morning sun, afternoon shade, but many will do well in full sun. Some of the magnolia figos, the Banana Shrub, some of those will actually do well in pretty deep shade. There’s almost a magnolia for every spot in every location.

MURPHY

Well, it sounds as if there is! If I wanted to buy one. You mentioned Plant Delights Nursery—we can’t endorse anybody on the program here—we are just mentioning some names. Are there any other places that we can go around here?

KEARNS

Plant Delights doesn’t actually sell magnolias, but if you go to Camellia Forest here in Chapel Hill, there has been some breeding by Clifford Parks—I don’t think his son, David, is doing any of the magnolia breeding, but Clifford has and he has, David sells some of his father’s, but you can also see some of the ones that have been developed by—there’s a gentleman that I have mentioned out of Chapel Hill who has a farm in Chatham County, his name is Tom Krenitsky and he has also released some through Camellia Forest. Most of the time some of the local nurseries, I have found are bringing in some of the deciduous ones—the big blooming ones like Galaxy, for example, which there was a man named Gresham who was a breeder, well known breeder, in the 1900’s late 1900’s, and he tended to breed for the really big blousy, very beautiful, colorful magnolias that would bloom before the leaves come out but a little bit after the frost date. Those and the soulangeana, which are crosses—the Little Sisters—are very popular to the point where the DOT is using them on the roadsides. You will see Jane, Betty—those are probably the most prominently used in roadside and median plantings. Those you can get in most of your local garden centers, now.

MURPHY

If I wanted to get something, would it be suitable as a specimen tree or more suitable in a grove or in a mixed planting, what do you think?

KEARNS

Mixed planting—most of the crosses are 10-20 feet tall. If you train them to a single trunk, particularly, they will get—they are sort of the medium under story plant, so I would say Betty was the first magnolia I ever planted in my garden when I moved south from New England, where I couldn’t grow magnolias. We’ve been here about 25 years. Betty is probably 30 feet now by about 30. But I’ve pruned it up so that there is; it’s more of a canopy type tree. That a more easy one to get hold of. I like some of the yellows—it’s sort of a new. When Dennis Ledvina started working with magnolia acuminata and brought the yellow color and the late, hardier bloom into deciduous magnolias, there are some like Sunsation, which has a really beautiful pink base to it and the rest of the blossom is yellow—bright yellow—gorgeous! There are a lot of yellows now, some of them came out of a breeding program at the New York Botanic Garden–Lois, Judy Zuk—a couple of those are really beautiful yellows that bloom after our frost date so there’s usually not a problem.

MURPHY

Well that’s good to know. That would be something good to look for. I know that a neighbor, near where I live, has what I call a Japanese magnolia—the pink blooms—it’s deciduous, nice large, pink blooms and not too infrequently, unfortunately, it will bloom out and then we have a little cold snap and the next day they are all turning brown and it’s really disappointing, so it’s good to know that there are some that will get past that barrier

KEARNS

Yes, if you look for it—and it’s more and more common to see where some of the breeding background is—and if you look for a breeder like Dennis Ledvina, for example, Roy Khlem at Song Sparrow Nursery in Chicago, ships out plants that are seed-grown, so they are not grafted. They are much hardier, obviously true to color, but those are very good ones for our area, even though they are a northern climate.

MURPHY

Is it more typical to find the grafted varieties than the seed-grown varieties?

KEARNS

Yes, I would say so unless you’re talking about the evergreens. The evergreens tend to be seed-grown. The ones we get in the nurseries tend to be grafted. Usually it’s on magnolia denudata, which is very hardy here. And there’s actually a good example of denudata in the Raulston’s collection.

MURPHY

Oh, okay.

KEARNS

But you’re right about the ones that bloom in March, we get a hard frost and they look like they’re done, but actually if they are a mature enough tree, those blossoms that are open, yes, they are pretty much brown mush the next day (laughter) but you’ll be surprised in two or three days—the tree will be just a mass of color because there are so many hardy buds, so a lot of the soulangeanas and magnolia stellata, the stellar magnolias—those are your early bloomers that tend to get hit by the frost but are also very hardy about coming back. The more mature they are, the more blossoms per season.

MURPHY

Well, it sounds like it’s one of the perks of your job or your position, or whatever, to get new plants to try out. That sounds pretty nice!

KEARNS

Yes, I have probably in the range of twenty to twenty-five that I’m trialing. We’ve unfortunately lost another breeder from Richmond, Virginia, named Bill Smith and he, again, amateur, taught English, so we had a lot in common, Bill and I. He was a very enthusiastic breeder and he used the Lewis Ginter’s (Botanical Garden)  back fields until there came a point when they said to him, “Bill, you’ve got to find a place for your magnolias!” So he spread them out to some of us in the area, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the ones that he donated several to my garden to trial. So I have records of probably about 20 of his, I think.

MURPHY

You must have a large garden space.

KEARNS

I only have about three acres, but a lot of it is filled with magnolias, Japanese Maples and Redbuds and then perennials.

MURPHY

Well that’s very nice; that is very nice.

KEARNS

It keeps me busy.

MURPHY

I’m sure it does! Are they relatively disease resistant? Is there a pest problem or disease problem that’s unique?

KEARNS

I think the further south of here, maybe a scale is a big problem. I don’t know about south, because I’ve got a friend in New York, upstate New York who’s got a problem with scale, as well, so scale does tend to be one of the problems with them. They’re pretty disease resistant and that actually is one of the things that does concern me a little bit, is that in my three acres, I do have so many and I’m a little concerned about having monoculture and therefore making myself more susceptible to problems, but so far and maybe because I have such a wide diversity and Asian and American and European that I, hopefully, I won’t have that problem. I’m not a big user of chemicals and pesticides. Once in a while I’ll find a caterpillar on one that’s chomping away on the leaf and I just remove that by hand. So far that’s been the worst of my problems! Ha Ha!

MURPHY

Well, that’s good to know. If they’re not subject to a lot of pests and disease invasions and especially if you keep the plant healthy, which we know we have to do with any plant. That healthier the plant the better it’s going to be.

KEARNS

Well, if you think, magnolias have come across millennia—we’re talking 100 million years! It’s resistant to a lot of things!

MURHPY

I would imagine so!

KEARNS

I has to be, right!

MURPHY

Yes, I expect it’s developed. By now there must be an enormous genetic resistance to a wide variety of things.

KEARNS

Exactly, exactly!

MURPHY

Well, Cheryl, this has been very informative and very interesting and I really, again, I appreciate your coming out on what started to be a very rainy day, here. I’m sure our listeners will enjoy this very much! This is Charles Murphy, hoping you enjoy this. And go out and look for some magnolias, now that you know where to go.

KEARNS

And can I chime in and ask that anyone interested in joining our society, we’d love to have you. Go to the website. It’s magnoliasociety.org, and all the membership information places to find trees, places to go see them, it’s all there on the website.

MURPHY

Thank you for mentioning that. I should have said, but I appreciate it!

KEARNS

Not a problem!

MURPHY

Thanks again!

KEARNS

You are very welcome!

JOHNSON

Now that you’ve listened to Charles and Cheryl Kearns, our hope is that you have a new  interest in magnolias and are motivated to “think outside the South” and consider planting in your landscape, one of the magnolias less commonly see in the Southern landscape.

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