It was not much more than a twig when it arrived.
But I had high hopes for it, envisioning lush blossoms on elegant branches.
Sure, I read it was a slow grower. But really, what gardener ever believes that line?
I will admit that it has been so many years since the twig of Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ was planted in the yard that I can’t recall exactly how long ago it was.
The desire for a magnolia was inspired by a 1999 visit to the Lyle E. Littlefield Ornamentals Trial Garden at the University of Maine. I’d been invited to come take a look at the amazing collection of plants by none other than Reeser Manley, who was director of the garden and an assistant professor at that time.
We toured the six acres and I was impressed by a number of plants, including the magnolias. They weren’t in bloom but were still delightful in their summer garb.
But that wasn’t when I got mine, because where it is growing is where an elm used to be. Not a huge one, but still an elm.
We all know that most elms in the state were wiped out by Dutch elm disease, but somehow that one was growing just fine behind the barn.
I wrote a column about our young elm later in 1999. I was so glad we had an elm, especially one that seemed to have outwitted the disease. It was nothing to compare to the ones you see in Castine, but still, it was a sturdy, beautiful tree.
Which died a fairly quick death from what was likely Dutch elm disease.
I don’t recall the exact year of that tragedy, but it left a hole where something was needed. Something that would flourish and make the world a more beautiful place.
It needed a tree.
Welcome, Magnolia ‘Butterflies.’
It supposedly isn’t hardy in my zone 4 yard, but neither should have been some of the magnolias thriving in the Orono trial garden, exposed up there at the top of the campus. That’s the point of the trial garden, to show that many plants have a greater tolerance for cold than for which they are given credit.
So ‘Butterflies’ has been in my yard for probably a good seven years, likely more. It never succumbed to the cold; it just kept growing oh-so-very slowly.
The descriptions of the cultivar, a cross between M. acuminata (cucumber tree) and M. denudata, say it grows slowly, reaching but 10-15 feet in height in a decade. At maturity, it might be anywhere from 20 to 30 feet tall, making a pyramidal shape as it goes.
But it takes a long time to get there.
We’ve got it in a good spot, protected from high winds with the barn as a breaker to the south and another outbuilding as a breaker to the north. It gets morning shade but then gets toasty warm in the afternoons.
The soil may not be the absolute best, but it is one of the areas that is more naturally moist given its location in the yard.
All in all, not a bad spot for a magnolia.
The thing is, we haven’t seen hide nor hair of a blossom. Ever.
Why is it that particular detail is rarely — if ever — mentioned? WARNING: May not bloom for years.
Probably because no one would purchase one.
They’d be fools not to.
Because this year, this crazy, bizarro year with temps swinging high and low, ‘Butterflies’ blossomed.
I didn’t dare hope when I saw the fuzzy little capsules protecting the buds last month. I told myself it might just be weird leaf stuff going on. But I let myself imagine what it would be like to finally see a magnolia blossoming in my yard.
Last week, it did. Delicate, creamy yellow flowers emerged, perhaps 4 inches in size. With a little trepidation, I got close enough to sniff the biggest bloom and was thrilled by a soft perfume that was pleasant and as whimsical as a tree covered in butterflies.
I felt as if I had received a most precious gift.
Despite thoughts to the contrary, I’d say our little one is right on schedule.
Janine Pineo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.