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A fragrant magnolia suitable for the hot and dry Chiang Mai valley

October 6, 2012

If you like tall, evergreen and fragrant magnolias but live in the hot and dry Chiang Mai valley (altitude 350 meters) there are really only two options commonly available: Magnolia (Michelia) champaca and Magnolia (Michelia) x alba (Magnoliaceae). There are more native magnolias but they prefer the moister and cooler climate at higher elevations.

At Dokmai Garden we have a specimen of the latter species planted in June 2006, in fact the oldest planted tree during the Seehamongkol reign. It has grown at a tremendous speed, taking advantage of some additional watering in the dry season. The circumference of the stem is now 59 cm at 1 meter’s height. Right now it is full of fragrant white flowers and the evergreen glossy foliage provides a refreshing shade.

This hybrid magnolia might be a cross of Magnolia champaca and M. montana. From our experience it seems more hardy than the native M. champaca which attracts pests and seem more sensitive to water logging. From an ornamental point of view, Magnolia x alba is more tidy and spreading. The other parent, M. montana, is native to much wetter areas (Malaysia and Borneo) which may explain the hybrid’s ability to withstand water logging better.

If you ask for it in a flower market, Thai people will say ‘champa’ about Magnolia champaca and ‘champee’ about Magnolia x alba, but as I have remarked numerous times, vernacular names are not standardized and so the confusion is total. Better emphasize the colour, ‘champee kao’ (white Michelia) will increase your chances to get the hybrid. To our Laotian readers, ‘champee’ in Lao language frequently refers to Plumeria spp of an entirely different family (Apocynaceae).

An English name? It is sometimes called ‘white champak’, but since albino forms occur in every organism, that name should be reserved for albino champaks (M. champaca). ‘Hybrid champak’ is a better name.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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