winter magnolias

A close-up view of a Sprenger magnolia ‘Claret Cup’ reveals varying shades of pink on each petal.

While many of nature’s star-power flowers take a rest during the winter, magnolias in the San Francisco Botanical Garden put on a hit show worthy of Broadway. Velvetlike buds burst open on bare branches into voluminous and fragrant blooms in shades of pink and pure white. The clear blue skies of a California winter provide the perfect backdrop to highlight the elegant flowers when they make their welcome yearly debut.

“Magnolias have long been the signature flower of the garden,” says Sue Ann Schiff, executive director of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society. “The city has an ideal climate to support them, so we have been able to cultivate and steward one of the world’s most important magnolia collections—critical for their conservation and survival.”

Magnolia denudata, white-flowering winter magnolia

Winter in San Francisco brings out a lovely spectacle of blossoms, and visitors look forward to taking in the annual magnolia beauty show.

The garden’s collection features 51 species and 33 cultivars, including many prized and rare examples from Asia, which are distinct from what is seen in Southern states.  Some of the trees reach 80 feet, making them a challenge to photograph, but that fact does not dissuade Saxon Holt. “These are large mature trees, and I have to be constantly looking up into the sky to find angles that show off the flowers as they naturally grow. But they are thrilling to photograph,” he says.

“They are deciduous and flower early, allowing the flowers to stand out like glowing stars on bare branches.” — Saxon Holt, Photographer

See the magnolias in bloom at the San Francisco Botanical Garden annually from mid-January through the end of March. The progress of the blooms can be tracked on the garden’s social media, so visits can be planned at the peak of the season.

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The contrast of the flowers on bare branches makes an elegant statement, especially when captured in such detail by photographer Saxon Holt. Pictured here: a Yulan magnolia, also known as a lily tree.
Buzzing bees also look forward to the arrival of the magnolia blossoms. Photo by Judy Harter
The garden is filled with the sweet scent of the magnolias, making for fragrant and lingering strolls from mid-January through the end of March. Photo by Kathryn Rummel
"A towering tree with thousands of huge, gorgeous pink flowers held upright against a blue sky is a sight you will remember for the rest of your lifetime." — Sue Ann Schiff
A saucer magnolia

Photography by Saxon Holt | Images courtesy of the San Francisco Botanical Garden