The Cornish climate is very suited to the large Tree Magnolia, Magnolia campbelii. In Britain they flower early in the year at a time when frost still reigns supreme, and will turn newly open blooms brown in bright morning sunlight. Therefore the prospects for us, with a slightly east facing garden and salt laden winds – on a shallow alkaline soil to boot – are not good. Certainly Sir Harold Hillier did not see Ventnor as a site for them. Fortunately his successor, Simon Goodenough, saw things differently. He planted a small group in a sheltered position which offered itself as available following the great autumn clear-out afforded by the Great Storm of 1987. These trees left juvenility early in their lives and began flowering in the late 1990s.
We have been recording the flowering times of these Magnolias diligently ever since and it has been possible to see patterns emerging in relation to the type of winter we experience. A “usual” winter at VBG, where we have a mild start with a short cold snap around Christmas, sees the first white M. campbellii var alba open in the first fortnight in January, with the redder cultivars opening two or three weeks later. Recent colder winters have pushed the first opening back into February. Our coldest winter for 30 years saw them open in March in 2010. Perhaps the most interesting so far has been a pre-Christmas flowering in 2009 which followed an autumn where the temperature never went below 5ºC. This happened again in 2011, but these early blooms where destroyed when a low pressure sat over Spain and pulled arctic cold down over us in February. This caused the Magnolias to start all over, but not until the first week of March. We wait to see what will happen in 2013.