McCreary: Magnolias at peak of bloom in February

Southern California gardens don't always pop up on our radar screen, but if you're planning a trip to the L.A. area in the next few weeks, try to make time to visit the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden and the Huntington Botanical Gardens. Both are in close proximity to one another near Pasadena.

These gardens entertain casual visitors and plant geeks alike any time of year, but in February, each becomes a showplace for flowering magnolias.

The Huntington has the smaller collection, which resides in or near the formal rose garden, a spectacular display in itself later in spring. You'll find most of the 60-some magnolias in the L.A. County Arboretum in the Meadowbrook Section.

Magnolia blossoms — the largest non-tropical flower — are often described as aristocratic because of their size, their goblet shape and delicate hues. Flowers on a multitude of deciduous species (those that lose their foliage in winter) vary from white to cream and shades of pink to nearly red and purple and are considered more beautiful than creamy blooms on the leather-leaved evergreen types.

Happily, we don't have to travel all the way to Southern California to witness this annual flowering in abundance. The San Francisco Botanical Garden (formerly known as Strybing Arboretum) boasts one of the finest collections of deciduous magnolias, species and cultivars, in the country, a major draw for visitors in February. Although blooms are at their peak now, they linger into March and some even extend into April.

Most are clustered along the Magnolia Walk behind the County Fair Building between the grassy Great Meadow and 17th Avenue, and several can be found in and around the Camellia Garden south of the North Gate just off Martin Luther King Drive.

You can download a map that shows precise locations from the web page describing the tulip tree (M. x soulangeana), http://www.sfbotanicalgarden.org/Gardens/bloom — 11 — 02.shtml.

Closer to home, Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen (quarryhillbg.org) has a wonderful collection of species magnolias and Michelias, which are now considered members of the Magnolia genus. In fact QBG has recently been recognized by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) as having the 9th most significant magnolia collection in the world.

Species preserved here in this largely Asian collection include many endangered in the wild, some near extinction, and parents of hybrids that have become garden favorites.

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