This small tree may have more confusion in its name, or names, than any other tree in the world. In the United States it's commonly known as the  Banana shrub, in Australia and New Zealand it's known as Port Wine magnolia, and in the UK they can't decide and call it both Banana shrub and Port Wine magnolia. To make matters worse even the botanists are in disagreement. Botanically it was first known as Liriodendron, as in the Tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera. Then it was called Michelia and finally, with the advantage of DNA analysis, it has been moved to the Magnolia genus. There's actually another possibility called Yulania, but enough of that.

Despite all of the uncertainties, the Banana shrub, or Port Wine magnolia, is one of the most charming and desirable shrubs ever to have been brought to the West from China. It starts off shrub like and grows at a steady rate over the years until it reaches 15 to 20 feet tall with a spread of 10 to 15 feet, depending on its environment. Its evergreen leaves are reminiscent of Waxleaf ligustrum (Ligustrum japonicum) being leathery glossy-green, but darker. With such thick and handsome foliage the Banana shrub, or Port Wine magnolia, would make just as splendid a hedge or screen as any ligustrum. But, of course, there remains the other great assets; the bloom and fragrance. In winter fuzzy golden brown bracts form a 1 inch cigar-shaped bud, from which small off-white flowers emerge in spring. The blossoms are about an inch and a half in diameter with six petals the color of aged ivory, etched in carmine. Though small they are quite beautiful and the relationship to magnolia is immediately apparent. Finally, there is the fragrance. This scent has been described in many ways: cantaloupe, port wine, ripe pears, bubblegum and of course bananas. One tree is enough to perfume the whole garden and one tree is usually what one will find growing since several could prove over-powering if sited too close.

Banana shrub, or Port Wine magnolia, grows in acid and alkaline soil  and appreciates moist conditions. If it has a draw-back , it would be that it is only half-hardy, although it seems able to withstand colder temperatures as it matures. In the US, it grows across the southern third of the country or the Deep South. It does well in the warmer, southerly parts of the UK and it is quite popular in Australia and New Zealand. The species may not be too hard to find but the cultivars, of which there are many, are more likely to be found in the better plant nurseries. The main significance to the newer varieties is the variation in flower color.

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Banana shrub / Port Wine magnolia

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A TREE A DAY

2017