Until a few years ago the genus Michelia counted some species of plants, belonging to the family of magnoliaceae, originating in Asia, scarcely spread in Europe; classification researchers have recently included michelie in the genus magnolia, so we can find information on these shrubs either with the name of michelie, or with the name of magnolias; in particular they belong to the subgenus yulania, to which it also belongs, to give an example more familiar to us, the magnolia stellata. In Italy, in very well-stocked nurseries, the number of michelie that are easily found is very small, generally we find Michelia figo (or more correctly figo magnolia), and Michelia x alba (a hybrid produced several decades ago in Europe); more rarely we find specimens of michelia champaca, which is slightly more delicate and less resistant than the previous two.
But why look in the nursery for a "magnolia" that is different "from those we already successfully cultivate in the garden?
Michelia as an alternative to magnolia
The michelie very resemble the magnolias, they are large shrubs or trees of medium or large, evergreen, with large oval, pointed, leathery and glossy leaves, very similar to those of the magnolia grandiflora; they produce many flowers in spring, usually gathered in small groups, leaf armpit, white, cream or pink in color (in shades of orange in the case of michelia champaca); the particularity of these flowers is that of being intensely perfumed, with an aroma that has stunned and fascinated anyone who has heard it at least once. In particular, the michelia flowers give off a very intense fruity aroma, which earned Michelia figo the common name banana tree in the English-speaking countries, as the small cream-colored flowers have an intense aroma of ripe banana pulp.
It is therefore in practice magnolias, very similar in shape and bearing to the magnolias that now live in our gardens, but with a slightly more exotic accent and an excellent perfume, and a spectacular flowering, which is often repeated (only with some flower here and there) in the summer months. In the last decades the breeders have produced many hybrid specimens, trying to make the most delicate kinds more resistant to the cold, so as to be able to spread these plants in all the gardens; in Italy it is not easy to find these hybrids, which for now remain plants for connoisseurs, unfortunately difficult to find. Michelia figo, on the other hand, is a large, fairly common shrub.
How to cultivate Michelia
In fact in the European nurseries there are few species of michelia, as these small evergreen trees are not very resistant to frost, and if we wish to cultivate the most particular species, we will have to keep them in pot, in order to protect them when frost arrives; the most widespread species is michelia figo, together with michelia x alba; these two species can withstand the Italian climate, although, especially during very cold winters, they should be covered with non-woven fabric. In nature these are large shrubs or small trees, which develop in the partial shade of the rainforests, therefore they prefer bright, but semi-shaded locations, without too many hours a day of direct sunlight; they settle in large pots or directly in the garden soil, in a place sheltered from the wind, especially during the wind. They love a slightly acidic soil, even if they can develop in neutral or alkaline soils without suffering excessively; the presence of an acid soil, however, favors flowering, and the development of healthy and lush specimens.
The suitable terrain
The soil must also always be slightly cool and moist, without excessive water stagnation; therefore during the summer months it will be necessary to water the plant, especially during the drier and drier periods, but waiting for the soil to dry a little between two waterings; during the winter months the plants enter a period of vegetative rest, it is therefore advisable to suspend the waterings until the arrival of spring.
In areas with a very harsh winter climate it can happen that the plant completely loses the foliage during the winter, but often the leaves are produced again when spring arrives; It is however advisable to trim the branches of the plants that have lost their leaves at the end of winter to stimulate the rapid development of the new shoots. In fact, in areas characterized by a very cold and harsh winter climate, it is convenient to cover the plants during the winter, with non-woven fabric, or to cultivate them in pots, so that they can be moved to the most suitable place for cultivation at the changing seasons. Michelia figo and michelia x alba can bear minimum temperatures a few degrees below zero, michelia champaca, on the other hand, prefers higher winter temperatures, and fear frost. In many parts of the world, especially in New Zealand, new michelia hybrids are constantly being produced, particularly floriferous, but often also resistant to frost, so it is likely that these small trees will succeed in our country too.
Use of seeds
If we cannot in any way find a specimen of michelia in the nursery, but we wish to cultivate them anyway, it is perhaps easier to look for the seeds, so that we too can have a specimen of these beautiful trees; in fact a specimen grown from seed will take a few years to flower, but we can cultivate it as bonsai, or even try to naturalize it, by getting the young plant born into the climate in the area where we live. The seeds of michelia are very similar to those of magnolia grandiflora, they are therefore quite large, dark and shiny, covered by a protective layer, which prevents water from penetrating inside the seed; in nature these seeds fall to the ground, and remain in moist and cool soil for months before germinating; if we want to sow these shrubs, it is necessary that our seeds undergo a treatment similar to what they would have in nature, since simply placing them on the ground and watering them, we will hardly be able to make them germinate. So we take the seeds and soak them for about twelve hours in water, then we can put them in a bag with sand and soil and keep them in the refrigerator for a few weeks, or we can make a light incision on the seeds (using a sharp knife or a cutter), and then sow them: both operations are carried out to break the cuticle that covers the seeds, which is completely water repellent.
Sow the michelie
Once the seeds have been in the refrigerator, or have been slightly incised, we can prepare a seeding tray, filled with a mixture of peat and sand in equal parts, already moistened. We plant the seeds at a depth of about one centimeter, and we keep the sowing tray in a cool and moist place; if we wish we can close the tray in a transparent plastic bag, which will allow the light to reach the ground, avoiding however that the humidity completely leaves the ground, thus maintaining a humid climate.
The young seedlings must be repotted when they are already a few centimeters high, and they are cultivated in pots for at least a couple of years, before being able to put them permanently in place; usually these small shrubs are cultivated in a cold greenhouse, until they are larger than 30-40 cm in height.