Skip to Content

What is a Lily Magnolia Tree?

This is a close look at a blooming lily magnolia tree.

Magnolia Liliiflora

Lily magnolia trees are the smallest of the genus magnolia. They are so small that they are often labeled as a shrub, though they are in fact a tree. Because of their open branching habit, it would be easy to mistake this small tree for a shrub.

Lily magnolias are native to southwestern China, specifically Sichuan and Yunnan. They have been cultivated for ornamental purposes for centuries in both China and Japan. Since then they have been naturalized as ornamental trees all over Europe and North America as well, where the climates allow.

These trees were first introduced to North America from Japanese cultivars, and that is why this tree is sometimes referred to as a “Japanese Magnolia”, though they originated in China. The lily magnolia tree also goes by the names of Yulan magnolia, purple magnolia, red magnolia, Jane magnolia tree, tulip magnolia, or the woody orchid.

Curious about other types of magnolia trees? We’ve got a list of 32 Different Types of Magnolias! But we didn’t stop there, we also compiled a crazy long list of 101 Types of Trees from all around the world! Learn about different evergreens or conifers! Learn about birch trees, pine trees, fruit trees, flowering trees, every type of tree under the sun!

Related: Southern Magnolia Tree | Sweetbay Magnolia Tree | Mountain Magnolia Tree

What does Lily Magnolia Trees Look Like?

Root System

Magnolia trees are known for having very shallow root systems that are wide-spreading. Some may consider these roots as being invasive because they will travel wherever there is a water source. Say that the water source was a crack in some plumbing piping, they could certainly do damage.

Magnolia tree roots rarely grow any deeper than 16 inches into the soil, and they will sometimes spread up to 4 times the distance of the width of the crown. Keep this in mind when planting a magnolia tree, as they may need more space than you think! These roots are very long and flexible, kind of like ropes.


Lily magnolias are exceptionally small trees, and will rarely exceed heights of 4 meters. They tend to be wider than they are tall, and have very narrow trunks. Though it is not a dwarf tree, some may think it to be a dwarf magnolia.

Growth Pattern

The lily magnolia tree is basal branching, with the trunk splitting into multiple large branches quite low down on the trunk. This growth pattern creates a compact and rounded crown, which is why this tree is often mistaken for a shrub.


Lily magnolia trees have gray/brown bark that is rather smooth in texture, except for the horizontal lenticels that have a kind of warty or scaly texture.


This is a close look at the foliage of a blooming lily magnolia tree.

Lily magnolia tree leaves are dark green in color with a glossy sheen. These green leaves are elliptical in shape with a smooth margin, and they will emerge in the late spring, after the magnolia flowers emerge.

How do Lily Magnolia Trees Reproduce?


These are clusters of blooming lily magnolia flowers.

The most noticeable thing about the magnolia tree is its stunning and showy flowers. Magnolia flowers are “perfect” flowers, meaning that they possess both female sexual characteristics and male sexual characteristics.

The pollen from the stamen on the flower can be windblown or transported by a pollinator to the stamen of either the same flower, flower on the same plant, or flower on a different plant. These flowers are very fragrant, which helps attracts bees and beetles which aid in pollination.

Lily magnolia trees have flowers that are 3-4 inches long with 6 petals. Flower buds emerge in late winter, and this flowering tree will bloom in the early spring before spring foliage does.

Most lily magnolia trees have amazing purple flowers, but a cultivar called Magnolia liliiflora ‘nigra produces a flower that is two-toned; with the outer side of the petal being a dark purple, and the inner side of the petal a light pink.


Once a magnolia tree is fertilized, it will produce fruit in the form of a woody oblong structure, similar to a cone. These cones are covered in pod-like follicles. Each follicle contains 2 seeds that hang out of the cone by a thin thread. Cones are a purple/brown color, and it matures in the late summer.

Sexual Maturity

Magnolia trees will start to produce flowers after about 10 years of age and will experience good seed crops every 4-5 years after that. They will experience their most productive years up until the age of 50. Magnolia trees will live to be 80-120 years old depending on the species.

What are Some Other Magnolia Tree Species?

The Bigleaf Magnolia Tree (Magnolia Macrophylla

This is a close look at a mature Bigleaf Magnolia Tree.

Bigleaf magnolia trees are native to the southeastern United States and northern Mexico. They have both the largest leaves and the largest flowers of any tree that is native to North America. Leaves can be over 30 inches long, with a tree height of 20 meters.

The Cucumber Tree (Magnolia Acuminata

This is a close look at a mature Cucumber Tree.

Cucumber trees are not actually the trees that grow cucumbers, but rather they are a magnolia tree that produces fruit that is oddly shaped like a cucumber. These trees are also called blue magnolias and are native to the northeastern part of the United States and southeastern Canada. These trees have conspicuous flowers that only grow at the very top of the tree crown.

The Umbrella Magnolia Tree (Magnolia Tripetala

This is a close look at the cone of an Umbrella Magnolia Tree.

Umbrella magnolia trees are named after their large clustered leaves that grow on the tips of branches, and that create an umbrella-shaped canopy. They are native to the Appalachian Mountains and the Ozarks. They grow to 15 meters in height with showy white flowers that have a citrus scent.

The Saucer Magnolia Tree (Magnolia x Soulangeana

This is a close look at a blooming Saucer Magnolia Tree.

Saucer magnolias are a hybrid magnolia tree that was designed specifically for large leaves and showy flowers. They are a very popular large shrub or small tree that is commonly grown on the east coast and west coast of North America. Their flowers bloom very early in the year and can be either pink or purple.

The Southern Magnolia Tree (Magnolia Grandiflora

This is a mature and healthy Southern Magnolia Tree.

Southern magnolia trees are sometimes called bull bay trees. They are a large tree that is native to the southeastern United States and grow only in lowland subtropical forests. These are a very tall magnolia species, gaining heights over 35 meters, and have large white flowers that have a lemon scent.

The Sweetbay Magnolia Tree (Magnolia Virginiana

This is a blooming Sweetbay Magnolia Tree in a garden.

Sweetbay magnolia trees are also called laurel trees or swamp magnolia trees. They are native trees to the Atlantic coastal plain. They have smaller leaves than most other magnolia species but have stunning cream-colored flowers that have a vanilla scent.

Where does Lily Magnolia Trees Grow?

This is a close look at a young flower of a lily magnolia tree.

Lily magnolia trees are native trees to southwestern China, specifically the regions of Yunnan and Sichuan. Since then they have been naturalized ornamentally in North America and Europe as well.

Magnolia trees are tropical plants, and will only grow in areas that experience a lot of annual precipitation and warm temperatures. They are water-loving, and will therefore be found growing in rich coves, and near bodies of water.

They will commonly be found growing in USDA growing zones 5 through 10. They tend to grow in areas that are wind-protected but also have full sun since they are very sensitive to cold temperatures.

What are the Growing Conditions of Lily Magnolia Trees?

This is a close look at a blooming flower of a lily magnolia tree.


Lily magnolia trees prefer to grow in mesic soils that are rich in nutrients, well-drained, moist, and slightly acidic.

Sun Exposure

Flowering plants are sun-loving, but too much sun may damage their lovely flowers. They experience their best growth in partial shade. If temperatures get too warm early in the year, flowers will bloom early but then die if an unexpected spring frost comes about.

Water Level

Magnolia trees need lots of moisture and require enough annual precipitation to keep their soil moist all year long.

How is Lily Magnolia Trees Used?

This is a close look at a blooming flower of a lily magnolia tree.


Lily magnolia trees are only used for ornamental purposes. In the regions that have the exact right growing conditions and climate, these trees will often be used in parks and gardens for their attractive leaves, neat shape, and their wonderfully beautiful and fragrant flowers.


The flowers of the magnolia tree attract many different kinds of pollinators. Their fruit is eaten by various wildlife species, like turkeys, quails, opossums, and squirrels. These animals help disperse the seeds of the tree by eating the fruit.