How to Grow and Care for Anise Magnolia

Anise magnolia tree branch with white flower tepals and pink centers closeup

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Within a genus that is known for its beauty, some magnolia species can take your breath away and others just make you want to breathe it all in. Anise magnolia, Magnolia salicifolia, does both. It is a small deciduous tree with willow-like leaves that are thinner than a typical magnolia, featuring spectacular six-sided white flowers tinged with pink that appear in early spring before the leaves unfurl. The appearance of the flowers provides enough of a wow factor, but their anise-lemon smell is equally intoxicating. Even the bark will provide you with the fragrance when scratched. In late summer, anise magnolia bears fruit that ripen into startling red seed pots that contrast with the dark green leaves. The foliage turns a bright golden-yellow in fall before falling.

Like other deciduous species in the genus, anise magnolia is generally planted in late fall in warmer climates, early spring in colder climates. It is usually sold as a container-grown or ball-and-burlap tree and has a moderate growth rate typical of many magnolias, 1 to 2 feet per year.

Common Name Anise magnolia, willow leaf magnolia 
Botanical Name  Magnolia salicifolia
Family Magnoliaceae
Plant Type Deciduous tree
Mature Size 20-30 ft. tall and wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Moist, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic (4.5-6.5)
Bloom Time Early spring
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 4–9 (USDA)
Native Range East Asia (Japan)

Anise Magnolia Care

Anise magnolia are relatively easy-to-grow trees. The biggest concern is finding a suitable place that is somewhat shielded from wind and has moist soil with adequate drainage.

Dig a hole twice as wide as your tree’s root ball, or container, and just as deep. Gently remove the tree from its burlap or container and set it in the hole making sure to keep it in an upright position as you fill the hole and compress the soil. The top of the root ball should be level with the surrounding ground, or slightly higher. Lightly mulch to a depth of 3 inches out to the dripline of the tree, making sure that no mulch touches the trunk of the tree.

If the tree is far from a water source, make a berm around the mulch to retain water and moisture, and soak the tree thoroughly. Water your magnolia regularly for the first year, until established.

Anise magnolia tree branches with white flowers tepals underneath sunlight

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Anise magnolia tree branches with white flowers and buds against blue sky

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Anise magnolia white flower with tepals and pink center closeup

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Anise magnolia white flower with six-sided tepals and leaves on bare branches closeup

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Light

Your anise magnolia can handle full sun if it is watered regularly or is in an area with rich moist soil. If it does not have particularly moist soil, plant it in a spot that gets partial shade. 

Soil

This tree prefers moist, slightly acidic soil, but it is crucial that the soil have excellent drainage. It's important to assess the soil's porosity before planting.

To do so: Dig a hole 12 inches wide by 12 inches deep in the planting area. Fill the hole with water and let it drain. Then, after it drains, fill it with water again, but, this time, see how long it takes to drain. In well-drained soil, the water will go down at a rate of about 1 inch an hour. A faster rate, such as in loose, sandy soil, may signal potentially dry site conditions. A slower rate indicates poor draining soil and is a yellow flag that you may need to improve drainage with amendments, plant in a bed, or look for plants that are more tolerant of wet soil conditions.

Water

During the first year or so, give your magnolia 1 inch of water per week as it becomes established. After the tree has become established, it should not need extra watering unless your area is experiencing drought conditions or is especially arid.

Temperature and Humidity

Anise magnolia is considered hardy in zones 3 to 9, though gardeners at either end of this range may find that the tree struggles in extreme cold or extreme heat. In warm summer temperatures, anise magnolia prefers consistently moist soil, so they thrive with the occasional rainstorm or deep watering.

Fertilizer

Fertilize anise magnolia in late winter or early spring with a slow-release shrub or tree food that contains sulfur and iron. A second application can be given in late summer.

Types of Anise Magnolia

The anise magnolia is available in several cultivars and has been used to parent many hybrid magnolias. Here are some popular choices:

  • 'Else Frye' has large white flowers, 6 inches in diameter.
  • 'Lufer' has pure white star-shaped flowers tipped with red.
  • 'Kochanakee' is has a pyramidal shape, with large fragrant flowers.
  • 'Memorial Garden' has a symmetrical pyramidal form with white flowers.
  • 'Miss Jack' is a faster-growing, larger tree that produces thousands of flowers.
  • 'WB Clarke' has larger flowers and thicker, heavily veined leaves.

A very popular hybrid form is Magnolia x kewensis ‘Wada’s Memory’. It is a fast-growing form with bronze foliage in spring that transitions through summer green to a bright yellow in fall. Its scent is also less potent.

Pruning

Like many magnolias, anise magnolia often produces multiple stems, but it can be trained to a tree form by pruning away all but one dominant stem to serve as a trunk. This should be done when the tree is young, as magnolias do not react well to major pruning when they are mature; large pruning cuts can introduce fungal diseases or insects.

Once the growth habit is established, pruning is not mandatory for magnolias, but if necessary, you can do modest shaping of the crown by light pruning done immediately after the flowering period is complete, in late spring or early summer.

Remove dead or diseased branches as you notice them. This pruning is best down in dry weather, as pruning in wet weather can encourage fungi to enter through the wounds.

Propagating Anise Magnolia

Anise magnolia is considered a bit harder to root from stem cuttings, so make sure to take several cuttings to ensure success. Here's how:

  1. In June or July, use sharp pruners to cut a 6- to 9-inch cutting from the tip of an actively growing branch. place the cutting in water to keep it moist.
  2. Remove all but two or three upper leaves, then use a sharp knife to make a 2-inch vertical slice at the end of the stem.
  3. Dip the cut end of the stem into rooting hormone powder, then plant the cutting into a small pot filled with moist perlite or vermiculite.
  4. Cover the pot loosely with a plastic bag to keep it moist, then place it in a location with bright indirect light. Mist the pot often and watch for the development of roots.
  5. When the cutting is firmly rooted (you will know by the resistance you feel when tugging on the stem), transplant the cutting into a larger pot filled with standard potting mix.
  6. Once the transplanted cutting has begun to develop new leaves, it is ready to transplant into the landscape.

How to Grow Anise Magnolia From Seed

Gather scarlet seeds from the dried fruits during summer or early fall. Plant them in fall in the desired garden location, about 1/2 inch deep. Anise magnolia seeds need a period of cold stratification, so when directly sown in the garden, they should germinate in spring.

Alternately, you can start seeds indoors. In fall, place the seeds in small plastic bags filled with moistened peat moss. Leave the bags loosely secured to allow for some air circulation, then place them in the refrigerator for at least three months. In later winter, remove the seeds and plant them in small containers filled with commercial potting mix, about 1/2 inch deep. Place the containers in a location with bright indirect light, and keep the mix moist as the seeds germinate and sprout. The new seedlings can be moved outside to plant in the garden or to continue growing in the pot when all danger of frost has passed.

Potting and Repotting Anise Magnolia

Anise magnolia is not often grown in containers, as it is a spreading tree with heavy foliage that makes it easily blown over if not anchored in the ground. If you do want to try it, a large, wide, heavy container filled with standard commercial potting mix will usually work. But a container-grown magnolia on a deck or patio may need to be discarded once it grows too large to be stable.

Overwintering

Anise magnolia is a hardy tree that doesn't require much cold protection except in the northern-most regions of the hardiness range, where a thick layer of winter mulch can protect the roots from damaging freeze-thaw cycles.

Where fungal diseases have been present, it's important to remove leaves and other plant debris that might harbor fungal spores over the winter.

Young trees should be protected with tree-shield fabric to prevent sunscald and bark splitting for the first few years. If rabbits or other gnawing animals are a problem, cylinders of metal hardware cloth can help protect the bark for the first few years. Once established, the trees will no longer require this protection.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Anise magnolia is subject to most of the same problems as other small deciduous magnolias.

The most common insect pest is scale, which creates small bumps on the undersides of leaves. As the insects inside the protective bumps feed on plant juices, the leaves can turn yellow and fall from the tree. Scale is difficult to control, but spring application of horticultural oil can slow the reemergence of the insects.

Magnolias can be susceptible to many fungal and bacterial diseases, especially in wet weather. These diseases can range from simple leaf spots, which often don't require any treatment at all, to more serious blights that can cause rapid decline of leaves. Mild fungal diseases can be addressed with spray or systemic fungicides. Serious disease may require a diagnosis from a professional or your local University extension service. Make sure to practice good hygiene when diseases strike: Remove affected branches, rake up leaf debris, sterilize cutting tools between pruning cuts.

How to Get Anise Magnolia to Bloom

Anise magnolia generally blooms in April before the leaves unfurl. Keeping the tree healthy and adequately fed and watered is usually sufficient to ensure an annual bloom that lasts for a few weeks. But young magnolias can take several years to reach flowering maturity, so don't panic if yours doesn't bloom in the first year after planting.

  • When a mature tree fails to bloom, it is often because a late frost has killed the flower buds. The tree generally returns to a normal bloom pattern the following year.
  • Inadequate soil fertility can also prevent profuse blooming. A soil test can tell you if your soil is adequate for magnolia; a regular feeding schedule may coax it into better blooming.
  • Lack of sun can also prevent a magnolia from blooming. This can sometimes happen as surrounding trees grow larger and begin casting shade over this relatively small ornamental tree. Pruning surrounding trees may help promote blooms on your magnolia.
  • Too much rain in early spring can also prevent flower buds from opening. This does create any long-term damage—just a disappointing spring show for that year.

Common Problems With Anise Magnolia

Anise magnolia is a species that is generally less prone to problems than hybrid types. But there are some common complaints to be aware of:

Damaged Bark

Magnolias has relatively thin bark that is easily damaged by string trimmers or lawnmowers. A shield around the base of the tree can prevent this mechanical damage, as well as gnawing from rabbits and other browsing creatures. This protection is most critical for young trees.

Powdery Residue on Leaves

This is a symptom of powdery mildew, a common fungal disease that is usually not very serious. The disease thrives in conditions that are humid but not rainy. Good air circulation can help prevent the disease. It may not be necessary to treat powdery mildew at all, but fungicides can be helpful with serious disease.

Leaves Look Scorched, Burned

This is sometimes a symptom of a fungal disease, but more often it occurs because the tree's leaves are shedding moisture faster than the tree's roots can replace it. Covering the ground under the tree's canopy with a thick layer of organic mulch will cool the soil and help retain moisture.

Bark on Trunk, Large Limbs Is Splitting, Cracked

It is normal for an older magnolia to develop cracks in the bark as it ages. The tree generally heals itself just fine, but you may want to keep an eye out for woodpeckers damaging the exposed wood. And watch for signs of rot. If the bark begins to completely delaminate and fall off, it's a more serious symptom that may indicate a fungal disease. Most experts now advise against spraying exposed areas with any kind of protective coating; just allow the tree to try and heal itself.

Younger trees may develop cracks in response to extreme cold or winter sun-scald. In climates with very cold but sunny winter days, such cracks often appear on the southwest side of the trunk. This is common with thin-barked trees such as magnolias. Usually, these cracks will heal themselves.

FAQ
  • How do I use anise magnolia in the landscape?

    Anise magnolia is a very ornamental tree, so consider giving it a spot of prominence that can be seen, admired, and inhaled. It makes an excellent specimen tree that also offers a bit of shade. A small grove or line of trees makes an excellent screen. It is small enough to make a good choice for urban courtyard gardens.

  • Is this plant edible?

    During the colonial era, the petals of this magnolia's flowers were often eaten. They have a very strong flavor and taste much as they smell.

    The preparation was to dilute the flavor by pickling the petals in a brine that was much like a sweet and sour pickle brine. The dried leaves of the magnolia were also commonly used much like the bay leaf to flavor soups, stews, and sauces.

  • How long does anise magnolia live?

    In ideal circumstances where the tree is lucky enough to escape serious fungal disease or wind damage, an anise magnolia might live 80 years or more. In practice, though, 30 to 40 years is a more typical lifespan for this small tree.