Gardening tips, Plants,

Pruning Your Magnolia Tree: When, Why, & How?

Magnolias, with their large flowers, bloom in spring or summer, creating a breath-taking display. Find out how to prune your magnolia tree with our guide.

6 MIN 09 Jan
Last update: 09 Jan 2024
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Magnolia trees, with over 80 species, are admired for their robust, leathery leaves and stunning flowers, which can be white or tinged with pink. And while these beautiful trees require little maintenance, pruning your magnolia tree is one task to approach with caution. 

Table of contents:
  • Magnolia tree types: Deciduous vs. Evergreen
  • How does pruning differ for evergreen and deciduous magnolias?
  • Why prune your magnolia tree?
  • How to train a magnolia tree by pruning
  • When to prune your magnolia tree
  • How to prune a magnolia tree
  • FAQs

But don’t panic! It’s not difficult; it’s just essential that you’re gentle and don’t go mad with the pruning shears. 

This article is about when, why, and how to prune your magnolia tree for outstanding results (for minimal effort!).

Ready? Let’s go! 

Magnolia tree types: Deciduous vs. Evergreen

A single magnolia bloom on a healthy-looking bush.

Firstly, let’s distinguish between the two primary types of Magnolia trees:

  • Evergreen Magnolias: Examples include Little Gem Magnolia, Bracken’s Brown Magnolia, and DD Blanchard Magnolia.
  • Deciduous Magnolias: Examples include Ann Magnolia, Jane Magnolia, and Alexandrina Magnolia.

What’s the difference?

Well, deciduous trees shed their leaves in winter, whereas evergreen trees retain their leaves throughout the year. Evergreen magnolia trees are vibrant and full of life, while deciduous trees are lush and dense and grow faster than their evergreen counterpart. 

How does pruning differ for evergreen and deciduous magnolias?

Unlike other garden shrubs, bushes or trees, magnolias generally require very little regular pruning. In fact, it’s typically considered best to avoid pruning a magnolia unless the plant has become overgrown, lost its shape, or has dead or diseased branches.  

Deciduous magnolias 

Jane magnolia flowers on the bush

These trees lose their leaves in the winter, so pruning is rarely required. However, there are some circumstances where you may want to prune:

  • Removing dead, diseased, or damaged wood to keep the tree healthy
  • Reducing the tree’s size, aiming for a balanced, open crown — thin out the stems to a side shoot or the trunk — but prune gradually over several years to avoid damaging the plant. 
  • Renovating a malformed or old tree, spreading the pruning over several years as older trees recover very slowly.

Evergreen magnolias

Little gem evergreen magnolia flower

Never hard-prune an evergreen magnolia. Like deciduous varieties, pruning should be confined to removing dead and diseased wood and shaping young trees shortly after planting them. Remove long branches at the top and remove the lower boughs to encourage a bare stem at the base. 

Why prune your magnolia tree?

Your main objectives when pruning your magnolia tree are: 

  • To remove the dead and diseased branches, and 
  • Cut back the water shoots — these distinctive fast-growing shoots grow directly upwards. 

Water shoots grow rapidly and zap the tree’s energy and nutrients, leading to disappointing growth. While they proliferate, water shoots offer weak natural growth and will result in poor flowering. 

Bad times.

So, pruning is a tried-and-tested approach to refreshing a tree’s vigour, allowing it to focus its energy towards flowering. 

However:

It’s essential to prune at the right time of year. 

How to train a magnolia tree by pruning

A trained magnolia tree against a wall.

Some evergreen magnolias grow and flower well when trained to warm sunny walls. One particular variety that thrives in these conditions is the M. grandiflora, offering a gorgeous spread across the wall. 

To train your magnolia, follow these steps:

  • Attach supports to the sunny wall — use a trellis or horizontal wires, and tie the branches at 45 degrees for the first season, lowering to horizontal for the second. This boosts flowering while helping the branches spread across the wall. 
  • Remove in-growing shoots — cut back the shoots growing inwardly towards the wall in the summer and shorten outwardly extending shoots to a couple of leaves. 
  • Delay pruning till after flowering

When to prune your magnolia tree

The only time you should prune a deciduous magnolia is after flowering — between mid-summer and the first signs of autumn. If you prune these varieties between late winter and early spring, the branches will bleed sap, negatively impacting the tree’s vitality and potentially attracting pests and insects.

However, you should prune evergreen magnolias in spring, so it’s important to know what type of tree or bush you have.

When to prune young plants 

Trim young magnolias in mid-to-late spring or whenever necessary. This involves shortening young, long branches and removing the lower boughs if they’re growing out of shape. 

Inspect your tree for weak limbs and small or twirling branches that may make your plant appear misshaped. Also, look out for abnormally large branches and remove them!

The Garden Doctor:

Over-pruning can cause unnecessary stress on the tree, leading to a weak and leggy appearance with fewer leaves and flowers.

How to prune a magnolia tree

A woman pruning a magnolia tree

Both Evergreen and Deciduous Magnolia Trees follow the same principle when it comes to pruning and trimming.

Use hand pruning shears to remove dying, dead, diseased, or weak branches, especially if you have just planted your tree. Cut the branches a quarter of an inch from the side shoot.

Remove suckers and water sprouts, which can inhibit the tree’s growth. 

For thicker branches, consider fork pruning them by removing one of the forked branches back to its junction point. This helps the tree maintain its shape while reducing overall growth.

The essential pruning tools

Typically, pruning a magnolia involves simply removing thin and weak branches, so you should be OK with a set of sharp pruning shears. However, if you’re removing large or thick branches, you might need a saw and a ladder for taller branches. 

And the universal pruning rule always applies: only ever prune with clean, sharp blades. Blunt blades will bruise and tear the plant, leaving it susceptible to disease, while sharp blades produce a clean cut. 

Always clean your tools before and after pruning, using a horticultural detergent suitable for your specific tools. This helps prevent cross-contamination. 

FAQs

When should you prune a magnolia tree?

Prune a deciduous magnolia after it has finished flowering between mid-summer and early autumn – avoid late winter/early spring, as the branches will bleed sap. Prune an evergreen magnolia tree in the spring before it has started flowering.

When should a magnolia bud?

Magnolia buds typically form in late summer or early autumn, around the same time that the tree sheds its leaves. These buds remain dormant throughout the winter and start to swell and develop in early spring. Once the buds have reached the desired size, they will begin to open and reveal the beautiful magnolia flowers.

Can you deadhead magnolia?

Deadheading, or removing spent flowers, is not typically necessary for magnolia trees. Unlike some flowering plants, magnolias naturally shed their flowers once they start to fade. Removing the spent blooms can disrupt the tree’s natural process and may even reduce the formation of new buds for the following year. It’s best to let the magnolia’s flowers fall off on their own.

Any questions?

Pruning your Magnolia tree correctly and at the right time can ensure a healthy, aesthetically pleasing tree that will be the highlight of your garden for years to come.

If you have any questions, please leave a comment below or drop us an email. Or check out our Help & Advice section for a range of comprehensive guides to your most challenging gardening and lawn care tasks. 

Happy gardening!

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