This might be the year when our Magnolia campbellii 'Charles Raffill' finally flowers. If so, it will be a landmark occasion. I knew when I planted it that Magnolia campbellii could not be expected to flower as a young plant. Capable of growing to a large tree, it takes its time. Reckoned by the International Dendrology Society to be 'perhaps the most magnificent of the magnolias' I had thought that it would be worth the wait. I did choose 'Charles Raffill' under the impression that it might flower a bit sooner than the straight species, but the nurseries selling it I checked just now on the web are all rather coy about exactly how soon a bit sooner might be, to the extent of not mentioning the wait at all. The IDS puts it at fifteen to twenty years plus for the subspecies campbellii, while some seedlings of the subspecies mollicomata have flowered in under twenty years. 'Charles Raffill' has both in its parentage. Grafting is supposed to speed the flowering process up.
The flowers, when they come, should be large, 23 centimetres in diameter, purple in bud, opening to rose-purple without and white flushed pink at the margin within, and faintly scented. In the meantime my tree has shot up in its clearing in the wood, surviving an early attack on its young bark by browsing deer, the two cold winters around 2010, and the dramatic collapse of a nearby mature ash and subsequent precautionary reduction of two neighbouring ash trees. It is difficult to estimate quite how tall it is now, since it is surrounded by other trees, but it must be planted a good couple of metres downhill of the house, and you gaze up into its crown from a first storey window. Up to now it has never flowered, the swelling buds each year opening to reveal only leaves, but this week, looking out of the bedroom window, I thought I saw different shaped buds on its upright branches, more visible and shaped like pointed eggs. I was curious enough to ask the Systems Administrator to look at them through binoculars, and the SA confirmed that they looked like buds, not old leaves that had hung on since last autumn.
There is still many a possible slip between cup and lip. Flowering early in the year, tree magnolias are vulnerable to frost damage. One unlucky cold night as the buds open could spell the end of any display before it has fairly begun. And it is only when it finally flowers that I will know whether it is the right thing. Magnolias have a nasty habit of getting muddled up in commerce. Out of leaf they all look pretty similar to a non-expert, and mistakes seem to happen in the supply chain, by the time batches have been moved around, labelled and relabelled by staff who are not experts, and are probably badly paid and sometimes working outside in unpleasant weather. It seemed as though every year some justifiably disgruntled customer would return to the plant centre because their pink magnolia had come out white, or vice versa. We would apologise and refund them or replace the plant, but at least the error came to light fairly quickly, while how do you compensate somebody for a lost twenty years?
So I wait with bated breath. Even one giant pink flower would be enough, if frost ruined everything the same night, just to tell me that the long wait has not been wasted. It has been fifteen years since I planted my tree.