Michelia alba – The King of Fragrant Plants

080803-michelia-alba.jpgMichelia alba is an evergreen tropical tree from Southeast Asia beloved for its wonderfully fragrant flowers. In its native habitat, this tree can get to 30′ high and wide and is often used as a street tree. It is believed to be a hybrid between Michelia champaca (another fragrant tree in its own right and the source of the word ‘Shampoo’) and Michelia montana, a Malaysian species. Possibly due to its hybrid origin, Michelia alba rarely set seeds in the garden, so most propagation is done by grafting or air-layering. This difficulty in propagation makes Michelia alba usually twice as expensive as Michelia champaca, which can be easily propagated from seed and is often used as rootstock for Michelia alba. One master hobbist friend of mine, Calvin, has successfully propagated Michelia alba in all possible ways, including softwood cuttings and occasional seeds.

In the Bay Area, Michelia alba is not completely hardy outside. Young trees will be killed to the ground and mature ones get heavily damaged during once-every-ten-year freeze events. However, if you have a corner with nice micro-climates such as a south-facing courtyard, you can successfully grow Michelia alba in ground. I have seen mature trees in Oakland and San Francisco. For most people, however, container is the best solution. During bad freezes, one can just move the treasured plants into a more protected place, such as under eaves for moderate freezes, and into garage for severe freezes. One issue with containerized Michelia alba is that its root system will use up all the nutrient and soil space after a few years. Repotting into slightly bigger containers will work for several years, but eventually the gardener has to either plant it in ground or do a surgery called root pruning. According to Calvin, one has to time this pruning just before a new flush of leaves is coming out (usually there are three flushes of new leaves every year), take the tree out of its pot and skin off an one-inch-thick layer of roots for a quarter of the whole exposed root surface. Let the plant recuperate in half shade for a couple of weeks afterwards and maybe thin out a few top branches to balance the water needs. I have not done it myself but will probably have to try it in a few years.

p7270792.JPGSince Michelia alba has very fleshy roots, well drained soil with lots of perlite and compost is ideal. One feeding recipe I got from a former commercial Michelia alba grower, Charles Lee, is to mix 5 tablespoons of fish emulsion and 1 tablespoon of water soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer such as Miracle Grow together with 5 gallons of water. Use several cups of this solution everytime Michelia alba is watered during the growing season (May to October). It is also important to remember to skip it and flush with lots of plain water once every month to avoid salt build-up. The results are lush, glossy foliage with loads of big, plump flowers throughout the growing season. The reason for this magical formula is that fish emulsion not only supplies all kinds of beneficial compounds, but also significantly lowers(acidifies) the pH of our tap water (pH = 9.0 in Mountain View) to about ph=4.0. The 20-20-20 fertilizer is just like bread and dessert rolled into one. Try it and you will be amazed how this diet would push a Michelia alba into pumping out waves after waves of flowers.

15 thoughts on “Michelia alba – The King of Fragrant Plants

  1. Daxin, Just came over to your site having read your comments on another forum. Is there any way to make the soil permanently acidic, instead of having to water it with solution each time? I am in Karachi, Pakistan. I would be watering it every day or every other day in the pot and mixing solutions each time seems like a hassle.

    Appreciate your time and thanks for a very informative article.

  2. Taariqq, Soil sulphur is much longer lasting than fish emulsion. You will only need to add it once a year. But fish emulsion provides lots of other benefits/nutrition to the soil and plant. So even if you do it once a month, it will still be quite helpful.

  3. I have seen these trees in my country.
    M. champaca (Champa) in Lonavala hill station and M. alba (Champak) in Manipur state. They grow there naturally with tremendous height, but I have never seen M. montana.
    However it grows in the jungles of Chattisgarh state and its buds are used against snakebites. The only thing I know about it is that its flowers are white. Do you have any information or pictures of it ?
    Please post if yes. Thanks.

  4. Hi Daxin, thank you for your info on the michelia alba. I have mine for about a month now and it is in a pot, I am afraid I have over fertilized it because the tip of the lowest leaf has turned black and it has spread very slowly in the last 7 days, I have just leached it with water and left it to drain. Please give me some insights into this problem and advise me what else I can do to rectify the situation. I gave it a mix of fish emulsion and some balanced fertilizer following your recipe, but I think maybe there was some slow release fertilizer left in the pot by the nursery and I had inadvertently added more. Please also tell me about your watering and fertilizing regime, eg how often you water and fertilize etc… I don’t want to kill this plant cos it cost me quite a bit and I have fallen very much in love with it. Thank you.

  5. Linh, Over fertilization is very lethal for Michelia alba since it kills the roots and cuts off the water supply for those big lush leaves. What you need to do now is to take your plant out of its pot. Use a moderate spray nozzle to wash away most of the soil from the roots, essentially bare-rooting it. Replant into a new soil mix of about 50% perlite, 25% peat moss, 25% potting soil. Let your tree recuperate in a shaded spot, preferably near lots of other plants for the extra humidity.

    Before you replant, you can actually inspect the roots and see what percentage of it is damaged. Healthy roots are white and dead roots are black. Trimming away the dead ones and dusting on a little rooting hormone/fungicide would certainly help. I’d also recommend removing similar percentage of leaves to balance the water needs. If the ambient humidity is low, you can wrap the whole plant in a big clear plastic bag to help keep it hydrated.

  6. Daxin, thank you. I have just repotted M. Alba following your instruction. I mixed 50% perlite, 25% peat moss and 25% azalea pot mix in a 420L (15 Gal) pot. I am from Melbourne Australia and we have just come out of a very cold, wet and windy winter, the humidity at the moment is about 50-60% and the temperature fluctuates between 10-20 degrees C (50-60 deg F) most day. The Australian summer is notoriously dry and very hot so I have set up a misting system that will kick in every couple hours and spray a fine mist for about 3 mins each time in anticipating of the coming months. I have put m alba together with my gardenia, ylang ylang, michelia champaca and Epiphyllum oxypetalum under cover with plenty of light. There was some black roots which I have trimmed off and dusted with some root hormone powder. I have also trimmed off some lower leaves and a couple of small growths nearest to the root. Hopefully I have done enough to save my precious plant. Will keep you posted. In the meantime I will just water it when it is dry and let it recuperate. I am very sure I will have to ask for more advice from you regarding the caring for m alba in the near future. Thank you again for your assistance, I feel very relieved that at least I was able to do something to rectify the over fertilizing problem.

  7. Hi Daxin, just a note to thank you. My michelia alba is doing well, has developed many lateral branches with several big fat buds. Can’t wait for them to open. Linh

  8. Just discovered this blog, and we’re so excited! We have an enormous Michelia Alba ( my husband’s family calls it Hung Fa) which we’ve grown from a 4 foot tree 11 years ago. I really want to learn to propagate this gorgeous thing. What’s the best way to learn directly from someone? Does anyone know someone who teaches propagation classes or provides consultations specifically on this tree?

  9. Hi MicheliaFan,

    Does Hung Fa mean red flower in Cantonese?

    The best way to propagate Michelia Alba is by Air Layering. You can search on Youtube for detailed instructions. It is not difficult but I have not tried until last October on a few branches. So far those branches are still holding green leaves. Hopefully they will root and grow when the weather warms up.

  10. Hello Daxin, I have had a lovely michelia alba for about 8 years in Melbourne Australia and she is now about 2 1/2 metres/almost 10 feet tall. I have recently noticed a little nut forming which I have never seen on the plant before and in the recent warm autumn days it has opened up with a little pinky cream coloured bean inside. Is this the seed of the plant? If I plant it, will it be a true michelia alba? Do I need to wait for the little bean to dry out before I plant it? I have searched everywhere on the internet and you are the only one to mention that this plant has seeds…

    1. Hi Claudia, I hope that it’s not too late, but you can plant the seed right away as most if not all Michelia seeds hate drying out. I am not sure whether the seed will come true or not, but it will be close to Michelia alba at the very least.

  11. Hi Daxin, I am a new member. I just ordered one plant of Michelia alba and I should receive it by next week. I heard that it is not easy to take care of this valuable plant especially the new beginners. I like your information. Thank you so much and also thanks to all posted comments. Daxin, what I should do with the plant? Should I plant in the big pot first for awhile or should I plant it in the ground right away? I live in SW Florida and some time, the wind is a little strong. Thank you in advance for any answers.

  12. Hi Daxin, my Michelia alba I bought last year was planted in the ground near my Florida room. The plant is doing well during winter time and is healthy. There are many new beautiful leaves now!