Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today


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Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.


Plant Profiles

Sunspire Magnolia: A Tale of Two Buds



Ah, Winter:  A ball of frozen snow has conveniently perched between two buds of my Sunspire magnolia.  The bud on the left is much larger.  How come?


Magnolias bloom in early Spring, and like all plants that do so, the buds for those flowers are formed the previous Fall.  Magnolia flowers are big, and so are their buds.  All Winter long, then, magnolia flower buds are showy. 




But what's with this whimpy bud?  It will lead to foliage, not flower.  The foliage doesn't open until after the flowers, and also doesn't need to go from zero-to-sixty in a day or two, as magnolia flowers (apparently) do.  And so the individual leaves don't need to be as fully-formed in a foliage bud.  No wonder foliage buds are smaller.




This large-bud / small-bud condition is common with woody plants that bloom in early Spring.  Check out one of your lilac bushes and you'll see the very same thing. 


Sunspire has several other talents that make the tree very appealing in Winter as well as Summer.  The bark is mottled with light gray, and is also very welcoming to colonies of lichen.




The most striking feature of Sunspire is the tree's narrow verticality. 




All of the twigs and branches point upward, resulting in a narrow and even columnar habit that's nearly unique across the immense Magnolia clan.




Sunspire is show from a distance, too, where its tall narrow profile is as much of an asset in the Winter as it is when the tree is in foliage during the warm seasons.




Here's how to grow this exceptional magnolia:


Latin Name

Magnolia x 'Sunspire'

Common Name

Sunspire Magnolia


Magnoliaceae, the Magnolia family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous fastigiate tree.


Zones 5 - 9.


Along with Sunsprite (see "Variants" below), Sunspire is unique among the many hundreds of Magnolia cultivars and scores of Magnolia species.  While some of them are comparatively narrow, with side branches that are roughly horizontal but shorter than usual, Sunsprite and Sunspire are truly columnar: all their branches point skyward.

Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

Ten to fifteen feet tall and two to three feet wide.  Ultimately to twenty- five feet tall and five to six feet wide.


Full but still open.  The canopy of leaves doesn't fully conceal the branches.  In early Spring, when the flowers open in advance of the foliage, the large flowers on the bare upright branches create a filigree.

Grown for

its habit:  Sunspire can grow in the most compact space.  It's so narrow it could even be used as a no-prune hedge.  See "Where to Use it" below for the range of options.    


its flowers:  Pale yellow flowers are always a distinction compared to the vast number of Magnolia species and cultivars with flowers that are pink or white.  More recent Magnolia cultivars are available with yellow flowers in deeper hues that were heretofore only found in daffodils or forsythia—but their saturated yellows are also harder to mix into early Spring's sparse and still drowsy landscape.


its resistance to deer:  Magnolia cultivars and species are usually not of interest to deer.

Flowering season

Early Spring: The first week of May here in Rhode Island.

Color combinations

Sunspire brings its light yellow color to the garden only for a couple of weeks in early Spring—in the warm months the tree is green; in the cold months its bare branches are gray—so color sensitivity is only in effect during flowering.  To my eye, the yellow is pale enough to go with everything, even the acid pink and lavender of some of the earliest rhododendrons.   

Partner Plants

If Sunspire were placed where it can be seen from top to bottom, shrubby partners that are low, mounding, and evergreen would provide a handsome and solidly "structural" look year-round.  The foliage of deciduous Magnolia species and cultivars, including Sunspire, is a medium or even light green—and is, of course, always comparatively large in any garden that doesn't specialize in tropical plants.  It partners easily with darker as well as smaller foliage.  Ilex crenata 'Helleri' grows full to the ground and, even after many years, can be only four to five feet tall and six or seven feet wide.  With its small and dark-green leaves, it would be an ideal Sunspire partner.  


If warm-weather appearance trumps the need for evergreen foliage during the cold months, the smooth-edged and oval foliage of Sunspire would be an exciting contrast to ferns.  At any preferred size, choose fern species and cultivars whose leaflets are pointy and even jagged, not rounded or smooth.  Ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthioperis, then, not royal fern, Osmunda regalis.


The white-mottled bark of Sunspire is interesting, but only at close range.  The tree could be more telling in Winter—when it's often inconvenient even to go outside, let alone get close enough to the bark to appreciate it—to partner the tree with one of the small-leaved or bird's-foot ivies that are hardy where you're gardening.  They can veneer the branches with evergreen foliage, but not become so bulky that they'd distort the tree's narrow profile.  The dark and pointy foliage would also be a terrific close-at-hand contrast with the Magnolia leaves.  They're present, of course, only in warm weather, just the time that you'll want to come outside and appreciate Sunspire again and again.


The tree's colorful performance is limited to early Spring; the Summer foliage is appealing but not striking, the Fall foliage is modestly appealing at best, as is the bark when in full reveal in Winter.  You could add another season of color in warm weather by growing a loose-limbed and Summer-flowering shrub or vine up into the Magnolia branches.  Given how striking the form of this Magnolia is, this would mean a commitment to keeping such a companion plant within the tree's overall shape.  Another consideration is that the Magnolia flowers best when it gets full sun, so you'll want to choose a companion plant whose growth is tall enough—to ten or fifteen feet tops—but not so vigorous or dense it would shade out its Magnolia host.


None of the clematis with flowers wider than four inches would grow large enough to overwhelm a mature Sunspire.  Perle D'Azur perhaps?  Multiflora roses often become too large, so consider ramblers, instead.  Don Juan typically grows ten to twelve feet tall, and is the rose I'll be training into my own Sunspire.  Easley's Golden Rambler can grow six feet taller, yet another excuse to purchase an even-taller stepladder.


Any such flowering climber could also grow alongside one of the "veneering" ivies, which are shade-tolerant enough to thrive amid the additional foliage that the climber would add, at least in warm weather, to that of the Magnolia itself.

Where to use it in your garden

Sunspire has such regular and contained growth—both in service to a strikingly narrow habit—that it's a natural candidate for any use that emphasizes repetition and columnar form.


—Plant it as a grove, spacing the young plants eight to twelve feet apart so there's sufficient clearance between plants even when they're at their maximum width of five to six feet.


—Plant it as a full-sun hedge, spacing as closely as you can afford.  (Admittedly, Sunspire isn't cheap.)  The spread is never more than two or three feet out from the center, so you'll need to plant no more than four feet apart if the hedge is to fill in.  Three or even two feet apart would be better.


—Plant it as columnar markers at the corners of a terrace or a crossing of two pathways.  Or, spacing the trees fifteen to thirty feet apart, as sentries marking off intervals of a very long border.


Or you can use it, as I have done, as a back-of-the-bed plant that can provide easy height without also casting appreciable shade on its neighbors.


Full sun in any decent soil with reasonable moisture and Winter drainage.  That said, growth is faster in more fertile, friable, and humus-rich soil. 

How to handle it:  The Basics

Sunspire is an accommodating Magnolia.  Plant in Spring or Fall, and be careful that the young plant gets sufficient water to establish.  Pruning is normally not necessary; Sunspire is handsome yet still contained even when growing completely free-range. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

None.  While there are many options—see "Where to Use it" above—for where to plant and how to configure Sunspire, the plant is simplicity itself in terms of handling:  Just let it grow.  Sunspire is the rare tree that almost never needs pruning to control size or to enhance branching pattern or flowering.  It also doesn't lend itself to the more creative pruning inherent in tactics that, so often in my own gardens, I readily embrace to enable trees to have a more specific (and often smaller) form: Pollarding, espaliering, and coppicing.  All by itself, Sunspire is both specific and small.  It just needs to be left to grow.

Quirks or special cases






The Magnolia world is far-flung and teaming, with over a thousand forms arising just from other cultivars.  In addition, there are the many scores of species, which are native to North and South America as well as Asia, from the Himalaya southeastward through Indonesia and the Philippines, then north though Vietnam, China, and Japan.  There are no Magnolia species native to Europe or Africa.  The species hybridize easily, and spontaneous mutations aren't uncommon, either.  All in all, it's a frenzy.  New Magnolia cultivars are as much of a sure thing as death and taxes.


Even in summary, the family is too large to gloss, so I'll return again and again to take another whack at the piñata.  For today, Magnolia species and cultivars with yellow flowers.  Only one species, M. acuminata, blooms in yellow, and it is therefore lurking in the parentage of all yellow Magnolia cultivars.  Their habits are all bushy and broadly upright, from under twenty feet tall to over forty, with the sole expection of fastigiate Sunspire and its even narrower sister Sunsprite, which at fifteen years might be twelve feet tall but still not more than a foot wide.


There are scores of cultivars.  Flowers can be larger or smaller, in yellow from butter-and-sugar pale to marigold, and sometimes with pink or orange at the base of the petals.  All yellow Magnolia cultivars and species are deciduous.  Although there are a (very) few Magnolia cultivars with variegated leaves, M. acuminata isn't (yet) a part of their make-up, so there aren't yet any yellow-flowered variegates.  There aren't any true dwarfs, either, although Kiki's Broom, at five feet wide and two feet tall, is the leading contender.  Nor are there any prostrates or weepers. 


But given the breadth of the Magnolia breeding stock, the number of Magnolia breeders, and the size of the Magnolia market, all three factors stay in continuous, synergistic, and mediagenic swirl.  Any gaps in Magnolia attributes are likely to be temporary.


Even now, with such mountains still to climb as a prostrate magnolia, let alone a weeping magnolia that's evergreen with variegated foliage and orange flares in the petals, there are already too many genres of Magnolia—evergreen, banana-leaved, pink--to-rose-flowered, white-flowered, burgundy-to-red-flowered, yellow-flowered, and oddballs—for even large gardens to have more than one or two of each.  Besides Sunspire, I limp along with another yellow cultivar, Butterflies, two evergreen cultivars (Edith Bogue and Bracken's Brown Beauty), an old star magnolia (Merrill), one dwarf pink (Kiki's Broom), and—this year, please!—the rare variegate, M. virginiana 'Mardi Gras'.


When we're in ultimate Nirvana, when all things Magnolia are realized, we'll all be that much more behind.



On-line and, where the species is soundly hardy, sometimes even at retailers.


By grafting.

Native habitat

Magnolia x 'Sunspire' is a hybrid of 'Woodsman' and 'Elizabeth'.  'Elizabeth' is a cross of M. acuminata, native to the eastern United States, and M. denudata, native to central China.  Magnolia x brooklynensis 'Woodsman' is a cross of M. acuminata and M. liliflora, which is thought to be native to China. 


M. acuminata is the only Magnolia with yellow flowers, so is somewhere in the parentage of every yellow-flowered cultivar.  With Sunspire, it's on both sides of the aisle, but even if M. acuminata were present in only one parent, that's usually enough to ensure yellow flowers in the offspring—as is the case with Elizabeth, a highly garden-worthy yellow cultivar in its own right.

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