A deciduous shrub or small tree up to 25 ft high, the slender young shoots clothed at first thickly with pale brown felt; glabrous and purplish brown the second year. Leaves ovate-lanceolate to narrowly oval, pointed at the apex, rounded, tapered, or slightly cordate at the base; 3 to 6 in. long, nearly half as much wide, dull green and soon glabrous above, velvety beneath with a dense coating of pale-brown wool; leaf-stalk 1⁄2 to 11⁄2 in. long, woolly, marked midway by a scar. Flowers white, 3 to 4 in. wide, cup-shaped, pendulous, fragrant, developing in May and June with the young foliage, each on a woolly stalk 1 to 11⁄2 in. long. Tepals usually nine, incurved, the largest obovate, rounded at the top, 21⁄2 in. long, 13⁄4 in. wide. Stamens numerous, 1⁄2 in. long, rich red. Fruit cylindric-ovoid, 2 to 3 in. long, 1 in. wide, purplish pink; seeds scarlet-coated.
Native of W. Szechwan and Yunnan, China, at 7,000 to 8,500 ft altitude; discovered by Wilson in 1904, introduced in 1908. This magnolia is one of the most beautiful of Wilson’s introductions. The finest example in cultivation is at Caerhays in Cornwall, where I have seen it in flower several times in May. It is there a small tree of open habit over 20 ft high and bears scores of its pure white blossoms, each with its conspicuous ring of crimson stamens. The height of this tree enables one to appreciate the beauty of the pendulous flowers to the full extent from the ground, and it is difficult to imagine one more lovely. It is related to M. sieboldii and M. sinensis, both of which have more abruptly pointed leaves. At Kew it is hardy, but never seems likely to get beyond the shrubby state, and it is frequently injured there by late spring frosts. It prefers a semi-shaded spot. There appear to be two forms in cultivation, one of broader habit with larger, wider leaves and larger flowers than the other, and they vary also in the amount of pubescence beneath the leaf.
A fine example of the species, raised from seeds received from Caerhays, received a First Class Certificate when shown from Wakehurst Place, Sussex, in 1932 (Journ. R.H.S., Vol. 58, p. xxix). The specimen growing there above The Slips may be the original and certainly represents M. wilsonii at its best. This is also true of the plant at Quarry Wood, near Newbury, raised from seeds received from Rowallane, Co. Down, in 1939 (Journ. R.H.S., Vol. 53, p. 266 and fig. 97). The then owner of Quarry Wood, the late Walter Bentley, thought this plant might be a hybrid, but Mr Johnstone accepted it as M. wilsonii and indeed the beautiful painting of the species by Anne Webster, reproduced in his book, was made from a flowering branch of the Quarry Wood plant. It should be added that the form of M. wilsonii that received an Award of Merit in 1925 as ‘Borde Hill form’ was certainly raised from the original wild seeds. This plant, which still exists, helps to confirm the supposition that the large-flowered, more robust forms of M. wilsonii are of garden origin, since it is greatly inferior to these garden seedlings, although at the time when it was shown it was judged to be superior to the general run of M. wilsonii.
It should be noted that the description of M. wilsonii given in the first paragraph covers only the forms of M. wilsonii usually seen in cultivation. In the types of M. taliensis and M. nicholsoniana, both now submerged in M. wilsonii, the leaves are more or less glabrous beneath except on the midrib and main veins. Also, in the type of M. nicholsoniana the leaves are oblong-obovate, cuneate at the base, the young wood yellowish grey and the flowers with twelve tepals. Wilson collected seeds of this form of M. wilsonii under W.838, but there is no record of its having been introduced to Britain. The plants distributed as M. nicholsoniana by Chenault proved to be M. sinensis.