A deciduous tree up to 65 ft high, the bark on the old branches and trunk light grey and peeling off in small flakes; young shoots glabrous, yellowish. Leaves oblanceolate or narrow-obovate to broad-obovate, 3 to 63⁄4 in. long, 13⁄8 to 43⁄4 in. wide, lower surface variable in indumentum from glabrous or almost so to appressed-downy, or villose along the midrib and main nerves. Flowers erect, produced before the leaves on glabrous peduncles. Tepals usually twelve in number, pink, or white stained purple at the base, 3 to 31⁄2 in. long and about 2 in. wide at the broadest part. Fruit-cones slender, about 3 in. long.
A native of Hupeh and E. Szechwan, China, where according to Wilson it is common in moist woods and thickets at 3,300 to 5,700 ft. It seems to have been first found by Augustine Henry in 1885; Wilson made further collections during his expeditions for Messrs Veitch and for the Arnold Arboretum, and sent seeds under W.688, collected autumn 1900 in woods near Chanyang Hsien, south of Ichang (see further under the varieties).
Wilson was convinced that this magnolia was no more than the wild prototype of the yulan, M. denudata, and it was under the names M. denudata var. purpurascens and M. denudata var. elongata that Wilson’s collections were treated in Plantae Wilsonianae, Vol. 1 (1913), pp. 401-402. On going into the matter thirteen years later, Dr Stapf of Kew recognised that this magnolia was a distinct species, which he had intended to call M. diva until his attention was called to M. sprengeri, described by Pampanini in 1915 from specimens collected a few years previously in Hupeh by the Italian missionary Silvestri. Examination of Pampanini’s type showed that it matched the Wilson specimens so well in flower that Dr Stapf abandoned his proposed name M. diva in favour of M. sprengeri. Unfortunately the type-specimen of M. sprengeri consists of flower only, so we are left without knowledge of the leaves of the typical variety or even of the flower-colour, which does not show up on the dried specimen. For this reason an overall description of the species is given above. In gardens it is necessary to recognise two varieties:
var. diva (Stapf) Johnstone M. sprengeri diva Stapf – Leaves broadly obovate, 4 to 63⁄4 in. long, 2 to 43⁄4 in. wide, densely villose long the midrib and main nerves beneath. Tepals rosy-pink on the outside, paler and streaked with dark lines within. Filaments of stamens rosy-red. Bot. Mag., t. 9116. All the plants of this variety growing in Britain descend by seeds or grafting from the one tree at Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, which was raised from the seeds sent by Wilson to Messrs Veitch in 1900 under W.688 and purchased by J. C. Williams at the Coombe Wood sale in 1913. All the other plants under this number turned out to be the white-flowered var. elongata.
The Caerhays tree was flowering by 1919. It was 30 ft high in 1932 and in 1966 measured 54 × 53⁄4 ft at 21⁄2 ft, with a spread of 36 × 20 ft. Of the many plants raised from its seeds not all have inherited its beautiful clear rosy-pink colouring and some, Mr Johnstone considered, might be hybrids. The true variety is a very fine magnolia, with flowers almost as well coloured as in the best forms of M. campbellii, though smaller and not so beautifully shaped. It flowers a week or so later than that species and, what is more important, its flower-buds seem to be more resistant to frost. The erect poise of the flowers distinguishes it from M. sargentiana and M. dawsoniana, and from M. campbellii it is quite different in its leaves, which are broadest above the middle. The var. diva received an Award of Merit in 1924.
cv. ‘Claret Cup’. – This received an Award of Merit when shown from Bodnant in 1963. The tepals are rosy-purple on the outside, paler and fading to white within.
var. elongata (Rehd. & Wils.) Johnstone M. denudata var. elongata Rehd. & Wils.; M. sprengeri elongata (Rehd. & Wils.) Stapf – Leaves mostly lanceolate to narrow-obovate but sometimes fairly broadly obovate, mostly 31⁄4 to 43⁄4 in. long, 13⁄8 to 21⁄4 in. wide, but larger on strong shoots, lower surface glabrous or almost so. Flowers creamy white, sometimes flushed purple at the base. According to Wilson, white-flowered plants are found growing in the wild intermixed with the pink form, but are rarer. By an unhappy mischance, however, all the plants raised from his W.688, and sold at the winding-up sale of the Coombe Wood nursery, turned out to be the var. elongata, with the exception of the one bought by J. C. Williams (see var. diva). As seen in cultivation, the var. elongata is not to be compared in beauty with either the var. diva or with M. denudata, but is very hardy. It flowers at the end of March or early April, before the leaves.