Deciduous shrub or small tree (1–)1.5–3(–)6) m tall and just as wide. Bark smooth, grey. Young branchlets (to 2 years old) slender, green, eventually becoming greyish brown, glabrous (sometimes puberulent especially at internodes); buds puberulent to densely covered with short shiny hairs. Leaves papery, narrowly elliptic to obovate-elliptic, 7–12 × 2.5–4 cm; base cuneate, apex acuminate to caudate (acumen 5–10 mm long); both surfaces glabrous, but sometimes white pilose along veins beneath; lateral veins 6–8 on each side of the midrib; petioles 3–12 mm long, glabrous, stipular scars extending to ~¼ the length of the petiole. Flowers fragrant, precocious, 5–7 cm across; tepals (9–)12–18, usually 4–merous, oblanceolate or obovate-spatulate, 2.8–5.1 × 1.2–2.4 cm, white to various shades of pink, becoming mostly white above; white to pink and/or red-striped (especially at the base) beneath, apex rounded to nearly acute; stamens 86–99, 7–10 mm long, light pink to creamy, persistent during male phase, anthers dehiscing laterally; gynoecium cylindrical, sessile; peduncles moderately to densely sericeous with colourless to fulvous (or yellowish) hairs. Fruits cylindrical, 4–6 cm long, carpels dehiscing via the dorsal suture; seeds 1–2 per carpel, sarcotesta red-orange, testa dark brown and smooth. Flowering February–mid-March, fruiting August–September (SE USA). Diploid 2n=38. (Chiu & Chen 1989; Wang et al. 2013).
Distribution China Zhejiang (3 sites in Jingning, Songyand and Wenzhou Counties)
Habitat Swamps, riparian scrublands and open forest, 700–1200 m.
USDA Hardiness Zone 5-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Endangered (EN)
First described as a species only in 1989, this small, rare and horticulturally desirable south eastern Chinese member of Section Yulania has often been included within the Japanese M. stellata. Still very much an experimental garden subject, it is appearing in collections on both sides of the Atlantic.
Its rather large number of relatively narrow tepals on a white to pale pink spectrum, as well as the usually shrubby habit gives M. sinostellata much of the garden ‘look’ of M. stellata. However, it can be distinguished by the green, largely glabrous 1st and 2nd year branchlets (vs. greyish brown with appressed whitish tomentum in M. stellata), the lack of the 3 sepaloid tepals seen in the outermost whorl of M. stellata, and the acuminate or caudate-acuminate leaf apex (vs. obtuse, acute or sometimes shortly acuminate). This, along with micromorphological characters and phylogenetic analysis of plastid DNA sequences (Wang et al. 2013), has led to a general acceptance of the species (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2022). Indeed, it seems possible that it is more closely related to M. amoena (which has more similar leaves and branchlets) than to M. stellata (Wang et al. 2013; Liu, Hu & Xang 2013), although a settled picture of relationships is still lacking.
This is an endangered plant, known only from small populations at three sites, and suffering poor reproductive performance. Following its description, these populations suffered from harvesting for the horticultural trade. In 2015, Fairy Lake Botanical Garden, Shenzen, with Botanic Gardens Conservation International began an ex situ propagation programme, producing material to bolster natural populations and developing two cultivars intended for commercial release in the future (Rivers et al. 2016).
As a result of early unregulated collecting and the Fairy Lake programme, M. sinostellata is appearing in Western gardens. Its apparent tolerance of waterlogging in the wild is potentially a valuable feature. A single plant has been grown since 2015 at Arboretum Wespelaar, northern Belgium, which suffers wet winters but has drainage in place where necessary. It is one of the earliest to flower in an area given over to MM. stellata, kobus, salicifolia and their hybrids, and after initially considering it inferior to M. stellata, Wespelaar staff now ‘all seem to agree that it is a great plant’ (K. Camelbeke pers. comm. 2022). They hope to propagate it from cuttings and test it under other conditions. In North America too it flowers earlier than M. stellata (R. Figlar pers. obs.).
Synonyms / alternative names
Magnolia sinostellata 'Jing Ning'
This name refers to a clone distributed from the first known wild locality in Jingning County, Zhejiang, rather than a selection made on its horticultural merits. Tepals white, flushed pink towards the base and on the midline beneath. It is available commercially in Europe.