profile: Michellia foggii

The question of why Michellia foggii is not for sale in every garden center in the Gulf Coast region is beyond me. This beautiful small evergreen tree is a magnolia relative with medium to large textured dark green leaves. It has an erect, pyramidal growth habit. A plant I planted as a 3 gallon back in 1994, reached the height of nearly twenty five feet with an eight feet in diameter at its base by the time I sold the house and garden in 2005. Most folks who have an interest in gardening know one of its parents, the Banana Shrub, Michellia figo (Magnolia fuscata), a plant common in old homeplaces in the Deep South. I won’t ever forget seeing a banana shrub that was planted in Carriere, Mississippi by a returning soldier from WWII just after he arrived home. It was really big, maybe 20+ feet tall and at least as round.

Michellia foggii, commonly called all-spice, possesses a delightfully pleasant lemony-sweet perfume that faintly sweetens the air: a trait it got from its Momma, Fragrant Michelia, Michellia champaca (Hortus describes champaca as “very fragrant”). The form of the flower has traits that are magnolia-like but resemble a banana shrub flower with a tight, rolled emerging bud, but bigger and sporting clear milk-white petals, about four inches in diameter when fully opened. Flowers occur in spring and again in late summer and fall. Twelve footers in my garden are now blooming and will sporadically go on like this until a hard frost comes, about December 1st. In many ways, it is similar to Little Gem Magnolia except with extra spring blooms and more pizazz. But basically the growth habit and form is much like its more popular american cutivar-cousin, Gem.

(click on photos to enlarge)

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above: a larger than normal bud due to expansion prior to bloom

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The buds are similar to Banana Shrub, too, but larger, fuzzy brown, tapered ornamental buttons that are staggered along the terminals of branches.

Michellia foggii always (ALWAYS!) looks good. Its always green and lush even in the dead of winter. It is a contender!!!!

There isn’t an easier plant to grow and never yet have I seen a problem that effects it.

Back in the day, the way-cool cutting-edge (now defunct since ’97) wholesale nursery, Magnolia Nursery in Chinchula, Alabama grew it, along with a species that black-belt- plantsman Tommy Dodd III once called the “Queen of the Magnolias”, Michellia maudiae. Maudiae has the odd distinction of having the common name “in the mountains Michellia” (don’t ask me!). Linda Erdman-Guy, who was the very talented nursery manager at the time at Magnolia I believe told me that cuttings would root in about September-August, when the new spring growth hard hardened-off somewhat. Bobby Green, of green Nurseries, of Fair Hope, Alabama says he uses 2 parts pearlite and one part vermiculite for the rooting medium he uses to propagate M. Maudiae and gets only 50% success.

There are only a couple of wholesale nurseries locally that I know still grow it and oddly enough. But I am always looking for the plant and a place in someone’s landscape to put it. Not a finer small upright-growing ornamental evergreen tree is there for the Gulf Coastal rim.

Like Michellia maudiea, Michellia foggii blooms so early in spring that occasionally the blooms are frozen but I have only seen this happen maybe twice in nearly thirty years of growing them.

In Michael Dirr’s Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates, he lists both Michellias as “most are zones 8-9 (10) adaptable and reserved for the collector”. Why it is listed as reserved for the collector, I don’t know but its probably has something to do with the “which comes first, the chicken or the egg” thing. But the point is, they may not be cold hardy the further north you go although a colleague and I have planted plants that were grown from seed sent to Dr. David Creech (Steven F Austin University) via his friend Professor Yin from Nanjing Botanical Gardens, purchased from Doremus four years ago, and are now growing well in Meridian Mississippi.

I have grown Michellia yunanensis, purchased from Heronswood Nursery back in ’95 and it was a sweet little thing, with tiny flowers. And am currently growing in the garden the foggii parent species, champaca (Vander Geisen Nursery/ bestliners.com) though after two years in the ground, I haven’t seen a bloom yet. But the champaca is growing gangbusters and is up to about nine feet, since it was planted, from a seven gallon nursery pot. I suspect this spring she will produce some blossoms.

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above: I yearn for fragrant champaca

If you can’t find the plant at you local nursery (and you won’t), check with Doremus Nursery in Warren Texas or Van Der Giesen Nursery in Semmes Alabama. Or, settle for mail order babies from somewhere found on the net. Good luck!

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