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Spring show-offs: Magnolias light up Federal Way botanical garden

Like a Southern belle who has wandered into a fern bar, all eyes are on the magnolia when she blooms in the spring garden. Even rhododendrons seem shy in her presence.

Magnolias have an outsized presence. Their large, showy flowers exude an alluring fragrance and come in white, yellow, pink and purple. Their leaves are so big they often look prehistoric.

And that’s because they are. Fossil remains identifiable as ancestors of today’s magnolias date to the Cretaceous period, 100 million years ago. Magnolias are survivors.

Here in the Pacific Northwest magnolias have been blooming early. And while every block seems to sport at least one of the showy trees, it’s often just the same hybrid over and over again. There are more than 300 deciduous and evergreen species of Magnolias and hundreds more of hybrids.

A large collection of spring bloomers are showing their stuff at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way.

Magnolias occur naturally with rhododendrons in the wild, making them natural companion plants, said Steve Hootman, the garden’s executive director and curator. And that makes them a great plant for Washington gardeners.

“They put on a better show (of flowers) than you’re going to get out of any other tree in our region,” Hootman said.

Magnolias are associated with the American South where several species are native. But most of the botanical garden’s specimens come from Asia.

Magnolias are considered trees but many look like large bushes. The vast majority of Magnolias in the urban setting are the saucer Magnolia with its huge pink to purple blooms. But other popular varieties include the star Magnolias and the evergreen Southern Magnolia (grandifolia) with its huge summer flowers and large glossy leaves.

The RSBG has expanded their collection to over 30 species of Magnolias, most of which are spring blooming deciduous varieties. They also have several native North American species. A newer section of the garden was planted in recent years with a concentration of Magnolias. Hootman said the section still needs a few more years to reach maturity.

“In five to 10 years it’s going to be mind-blowing,” Hootman said of the magnolia section.

Whether Magnolias bloom in spring or in summer they are hardy in the Northwest. But a rare late frost can kill off a flush of buds. Though they can tolerate shade, the trees will produce more flowers in full sun.

Though some of the Magnolias are already dropping their flowers there are still plenty in bloom at the RSBG. And in keeping with the early spring a good portion of the garden’s rhododendron collection is already in bloom.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541