Tree to 25 m, 45 cm m dbh. Bark smooth and greyish brown. Branchlets red-brown, with reddish brown hairs at first, later glabrescent. Leaves evergreen, leathery. Leaf blade 8–17 × 2.5–5.5 cm, narrowly obovate to narrowly elliptic; upper surface glabrous, lower surface sparsely reddish-brown pubescent; 8–17 secondary veins on each side of the midrib; base cuneate and decurrent along petiole; margins slightly incurved; apex acute. Petiole 1–3(–4.5) cm long, base slightly swollen; stipular scar semi-elliptic, 3–5 mm long. Flowers terminal, fragrant; peduncle with reddish brown hairs, 5–11 × 4–10 mm. Tepals 9, pure white; those of inner 2 whorls obovate, 4–6 × 2–3 cm, usually fleshy; outer 3 usually thinner, 5–7 × 3–4 cm, more variably shaped. Stamens red ~1 cm. Gynoecium 1.5–2.5 cm, sessile, with 18–32 carpels, glabrous. Fruits brown or purple, 2–6 cm long, ovoid, mature carpels with 1 mm beak. Flowering April–May, fruiting September–October (China). (Xia, Liu & Nooteboom 2008; Chen & Nooteboom 1993).
Distribution China Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hainan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Yunnan, Zhejiang Vietnam
Habitat Subtropical evergreen broadleaved forest, 300–1200 m.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H3
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
This widespread tree of southern China is in many ways typical of Section Manglietia, with its fragrant, white, cup shaped flowers at the shoot tips; its glossy, evergreen leaves rather reminiscent of Ficus elastica; and its modest degree of hardiness. While genuine M. fordiana is grown in our area, the name has often been applied to specimens of other species. Part of a taxonomically challenging complex, growers would be wise to not brush aside the different ways the name has been used by botanists.
The concept of M. fordiana has been fluid, with various taxa sometimes considered to be varieties of it, sometimes distinct species. We follow Magnolia Society International (Figlar 2012) in recognizing three varieties in addition to the type var. fordiana: var. calcarea (X.H. Song) V.S. Kumar, endemic to Guizhou, differing in its glabrous branchlets and leaves, and narrowly elliptic carpels; var. forrestii (W.W. Sm. ex Dandy) V.S. Kumar from Guangxi and Yunnan, with more striking brown pubescence on the branchlets, stipules, leaf undersides and petioles, extending also to the outer tepal undersides; and var. hainanensis (Dandy) N.H. Xia, endemic to Hainan and differing in its more thinly leathery leaves with wavy margins, glabrous peduncles, and mature carpels lacking a beak. M. kwangtungensis (q.v.) has sometimes been treated as M. fordiana var. kwangtungensis (Merr.) V.S. Kumar, with rufous indumentum, and smaller flowers with many more (44–49) carpels (Guangdong, Guangxi). M. yuyuanensis (q.v.) with its yellow-brown branchlets, acuminate to caudate leaf apices, longer peduncles and smaller, greenish outer tepals was sunk into M. fordiana var. fordiana by Chen & Nooteboom (1993) and Xia, Liu & Nooteboom (2008), a treatment we do not follow here. The more recently described M. xinganensis (q.v.) probably also belongs to this complex.
Dick Figlar (in Grimshaw & Bayton 2009) cautions that many plants labelled M. fordiana in gardens are probably the very closely related M. yuyuanensis, which seems to be more attractive and amenable to cultivation. Specimens of var. fordiana grown in Vancouver, BC from a collection made by Peter Bristol, Lawrence Lee and Peter Wharton in 1988 in southern Anhui province have not performed well, being apt to be chlorotic and of unattractive shape. Their branches also tend to break under the weight of snow (Wharton 2007). Magnolia fordiana seems to be able to tolerate cold to about –6 °C (S. Hogan, pers. comm. 2007). It is still scarce in the United Kingdom but young plants are growing at Tregrehan (4 m × 35 cm, 2014). There is also a rare record of var. forrestii grown from wild origin seed at Tregrehan (8 m × 58 cm in 2014, planted 2000 – The Tree Register 2021). The Tregrehan plants flower annually (T. Hudson pers. comm. 2022).