It is not possible or necessary to use all of the plants found in the gardens of Japan. Using Japanese plants does not make your garden a “Japanese Garden.” Rather, it is best to find locally available plants, match them to the site, and strategically place them in the garden to fulfill the proper role.
One important principle of Japanese gardening is scale. When it comes to plants, that means choosing trees that are more in scale with people and the homes they live in. Trees do not have to be “dwarf,” but planting trees that will eventually tower over your Japanese-style garden will throw off the scale that you’ve worked so hard to create. Therefore, smaller trees, anywhere from six to eighteen feet are probably best, but it does depend on each garden. It may be best to keep that range from six to twelve feet for smaller gardens.
Star magnolia, or Magnolia stellata, is one good choice for an ornamental tree to use in your Japanese-style garden. Although most plants should be evergreen or broad-leaved evergreen, some deciduous trees and shrubs should also be planted, and the Star magnolia fits into that category.
During the season this tree will provide a soft green foliage, with not overly large flowers in early spring. But one of the most attractive aspects is the potential branching structure that can be created with annual pruning. Japanese garden trees tend to have “layers” of horizontal branches evenly spaced up and down the tree. The natural branching pattern of the Star magnolia makes this fairly easy to create over time.
Another advantage to this plant is the range of sunlight it can adapt to. Ideally partial sun may be best, but it can still achieve a full branching structure in mostly shade. For best flowering it does need sun, although it may be best for the tree to avoid strong, direct afternoon sun. As always, consult a local landscape expert about proper site placement and short-term and long-term care before deciding to use this plant.