Evergreen tree to 30 m. Young branchlets, buds, petioles, and lower leaf surfaces with greyish-white appressed hairs. Leaf blade thin, papery to leathery, elliptic, oblong-elliptic, or narrowly elliptic, 10–22 × 5–7 cm, secondary veins 10–14 on each side of midvein, reticulate veins dense, slender, greyish below, on upper surface prominent when dry, and with fine, dense hairs; base broadly cuneate or obtuse; margin slightly involute; apex acute to long acute. Petiole 1–2 cm, stipular scar ~⅕ as long as petiole. Flowers fragrant, on short axillary shoots (brachyblasts) which have densely appressed hairs. Tepals white, narrowly obovate-spoon-shaped, 5–7 × ~2.5 cm, base clawed, apex rounded. Stamens 1.2–1.7 cm; connective exserted and forming a 1.5–2 mm sharp tip; anthers 0.8–1.2 cm. Gynophore 6–8 mm, densely grayish-hairy; gynoecium narrowly ovoid, 1.5–2 cm; carpels 9–12 mm, densely greyish-hairy; ovaries 4–5 mm; styles 5–7 mm. Fruit 4–7 cm; mature carpels nearly obovoid, ~1.5 cm, with residual fine, appressed hairs, apex acutely beaked. Flowering April–May, fruiting September–October in the wild. (Xia, Liu & Nooteboom 2008; Chen & Nooteboom 1993).
Distribution Bhutan Myanmar N China S and SE Xizang, NW Yunnan India NE Nepal
Habitat Evergreen broad-leaved forests, 1500–2400 m.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8-10
RHS Hardiness Rating H4
Conservation status Data deficient (DD)
One of the better known and longer cultivated species of Section Michelia, Magnolia doltsopa is quite typical of them in being a large, evergreen forest tree, bearing its highly fragrant white flowers in leaf axils, high in the canopy. Typically again, it is native to warm temperate areas and only suits milder parts of our area, where old specimens can be magnificent, perfuming a wide area in spring.
Native to the Sino-Himalayan region, M. doltsopa became known to science from the western end of its range. The Scottish surgeon-naturalist Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, active in India, Myanmar and Nepal at the turn of the 18th/19th centuries, collected specimens in Nepal, and it was described by de Candolle in 1817. The use of its wood in construction across the native range (Chen & Nooteboom 1993) was noted early. Loudon (1838) claimed it as ‘one of the finest trees in Nepal, yielding a fragrant wood much used there for house building’. Several more-or-less forgotten synonyms in addition to those listed above, in part reflect a degree of variation in this widely distributed species.
Introduction to cultivation followed a century later, from the opposite end of its range. Seed collected in China by George Forrest reached Britain in about 1918 (Bean 1981); it is often difficult to pin trees from Forrest’s introductions (some of which were collected under the synonyms M. excelsa and M. manipurensis) down to collection numbers and precise localities. First flowering was at Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, in 1933. This is still one of the best places to see the species in our area, although the identification of some of the seven hefty originals, which vary in indumentum development on the leaf underside and in scent, is contested. One in particular has been attributed to M. floribunda by some, while others consider that they all represent variants of M. doltsopa as currently understood (Williams 2018; Williams 2022). Further specimens are seedlings from some of the uncontested trees; few places in the garden are out of range of their scent at flowering time. They branch at or near the base to make broad, domed crowns: dimensions include 21.5 m × 213 cm and 14 m × 570 cm in 2016 (Tree Register 2021). There are good specimens in other Devon and Cornwall gardens, as well as on the west coast of Scotland (15 m × 155 cm at Brodick Castle, 2017) and in coastal Ireland (21 m × 155 cm at Mount Congreve, Co. Waterford, 2010). Away from these favoured areas, a tree planted in the shelter of a wall at Wakehurst Place, Sussex, and which has flowered at least since 1984 (Clarke 1988) had reached 8 m × 62 cm by 2015 (Tree Register 2021). Nick Macer notes that younger specimens planted in woodland settings, in both Kent and upland North Wales, came through the harsh winters at either end of 2010 unscathed (Pan-Global Plants 2021); he has also distributed a recent high altitude introduction (NJM 13.051) from almost 2,400 m in Manipur, NE India. Elsewhere in Europe it should be tried in milder parts of western and northern France, and the Low Countries. There are young examples in several Belgian collections, including four from 1999 at Arboretum Bokrijk (Plantcol 2021).
In our North American area, it is well established in the Bay Area of California, with older trees reaching 15 m at the Strybing Arboretum (from where plants have been distributed as ‘Strybing Strain’) and many younger trees in street plantings (McNeil 2021; Dirr 2009). It would be worth trying in sheltered coastal spots further north in California and Oregon.
It is a parent (with M. figo) of a group of artificial hybrids, M. × foggii (q.v.) and is involved in Mark Jury’s more complex michelia hybrids; of these, M. ‘Micjur05’ (FAIRY MAGNOLIA WHITE) is closest to M. doltsopa in general appearance and fragrance, serving as a hardier substitute for smaller gardens.
Flowers large, to 20 cm across, with about 30 tepals; flower buds produced in first year on layered plants. Selected by Duncan & Davies, New Zealand, in the 1950s or 60s, a seedling sent to New Zealand by Hillier Nurseries (Edwards & Marshall 2019; Magnolia Grove 2021). Now well established outside New Zealand, there is a significant specimen at Caerhays Castle, Cornwall (11 m × 84 cm, 2016 – Tree Register 2021).