Tree to 12 m. Bark grey or greyish white. Branchlets slender, glabrous and purplish brown. Leaves deciduous, thin and leathery, 10–15 × 3.5–5 cm, elliptic to obovate, upper surface glabrous, lower surface covered with curly hairs, plus long white hairs on the midrib and veins, 10–13 secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins entire, apex acute to cuspidate; petiole 0.8–1.3 cm long and pubescent; stipules adnate to the petiole. Flowers terminal and produced before the leaves, pale pink with a darker centre, slightly scented and ~6 cm diameter; peduncle densely hairy. Tepals 9, spathulate or oblanceolate, 5–6.5 cm long; stamens purplish red; gynoecium sessile. Fruits 4–6 cm long and cylindrical, though some carpels may abort causing the fruit to be contorted; ripe carpels oblong, ~1 cm long, woody, tuberculate and dehiscing along a dorsal suture. Flowering April to May, fruiting September to October (China). (Chen & Nooteboom 1993; Gardiner 2000; Liu et al. 2004)
Distribution China Anhui, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Zhejiang
Habitat Forests, 200–1000 m.
USDA Hardiness Zone 5-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Vulnerable (VU)
Magnolia amoena is a classic deciduous species, with small but abundant, scented white and pink flowers appearing in early spring, usually late March in northern Europe. If they avoid frost these go on to produce long red sausage-shaped fruits and a tree may carry literally hundreds of these, presenting another attractive sight in autumn (J. Gallagher, pers. comm. 2007). Which aspect of the plant was intended when it was given this specific epithet (from the Latin amoenus – ‘beautiful’ or ‘pleasant’) is unclear. It has a rather similar eastern Chinese range to the more familiar M. cylindrica, M. denudata and M. officinalis, and is proving similarly hardy.
Along with M. biondii and M. zenii, this is one of a group of smaller-flowered, early-blooming yulanias poorly known and confused in Western cultivation. These three species, along with M. sinostellata, grouped together as a clade in an analysis of plastid genome sequences (Wang et al. 2020). Following Flora of China (Xia, Liu & Nooteboom 2008) M. amoena should be distinguishable from M. biondii by its 9 petaloid tepals (versus 6 petaloid and 3 sepaloid); and from M. zenii by having 10–13 pairs of secondary veins each side of the leaf midvein (versus 8–10) and its shorter tepals, 5–6.5 cm long (versus 7–8 cm). Hybrids, of course, may also show some of these characters. Philippe de Spoelberch makes a depressing if honest observation about the group (pers. comm. 2022): ‘plants of amoena, biondii and zenii are all very mixed with 6 or 9 petaloid tepals, small and very early. Other than that, I see nothing significant to distinguish what we have in cultivation’.
Best known as a wild plant from Tianmushan, a mountain in Zhejiang rich in woody species, it has a highly fragmented distribution and is considered vulnerable due to habitat loss and the gathering of firewood and floral buds for medicine (IUCN 2021). It has been available as seed from the Shanghai Botanic and Hangzhou Botanical Gardens for many years, but the genetic purity of such material has long been questioned (Spongberg 1998). Such seedlings are quite widely cultivated in Europe and North America; plants in commerce are probably mostly from this stock (e.g. Frank P Matthews 2021). Larger trees in our area are likely to have this origin, for example one of 9 m × 50 cm (2016) at Burncoose, Cornwall (The Tree Register 2021). A tree at the Morris Arboretum, PA, planted in 1992 was 6 m tall when seen in 2006.
In 1994 scionwood was sent from Hangzhou Botanical Garden to Dr James Waddick of Kansas City, Missouri, and grafted specimens from this are now grown in North America. It was assumed that the parent tree was of wild origin (C. Tubesing, pers. comm. to P. Wharton 2007). Tubesing commented that the ‘small flowers were quite distinctive with 6 reflexed tepals surrounding 3 upright. They had a strong fragrance that was unlike any other Magnolia I am familiar with and difficult to describe’ (Gardiner 2000). However, Philippe de Spoelberch who has examined many garden plants in this group has never seen anything like this flower form (pers. comm. 2022). Confusion reigns.
At any rate, plants labelled Magnolia amoena seem to do well wherever deciduous magnolias thrive.