Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’)

Southern Magnolia, Little Gem, Little Gem Magnolia

If you’re a Southern magnolia tree fan but have a small yard, then the little gem magnolia tree is for you. Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little gem,’ is a dwarf variety that is much smaller, growing only up to 20 feet tall but bearing the exact beauty of glossy foliage and creamy, tan flowers.

These little gems are the perfect addition to a landscape, whether as a hedge border to serve as a privacy screen or as a lone accent small tree in small yards. Keep reading to know more about the little gem magnolia tree.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Apart from being smaller, the Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little gem’ is a slower grower than the original Southern magnolia tree. It’s also an evergreen tree or a multi-stemmed shrub that’s dense, compact, and upright.

The blooms arrive early, about two to three years after planting. Each flower is about 4 to 6 inches in diameter with six petals in white or cream color. These flowers are very showy and fragrant, making the whole little gem tree a real gem in your garden.

The blooming season begins in mid-spring and lasts through summer.

Its foliage is equally appealing, boasting a dark green, glossy surface and copper brown underneath. Each leaf has a simple leaf margin and is about 3 to 6 inches long with an elliptical shape.

Not only is little gem an attraction to humans, but it also invites birds and other wildlife to come and visit. This species is deer-resistant, so there is no need to worry if some deer occasionally visit you. If you don’t have enough space, you can plant this dwarf variety indoors in a container.

It has a slow growth rate so that it won’t bother you much.

II. How to Grow and Care

Magnolia trees can be a bit fussy so it’s important to choose the right planting location. If you choose to grow a little gem magnolia in a pot, you’ll need a large container with plenty of drainage holes.

A ten-gallon pot will accommodate, however annual pruning including root pruning may be required.

Sunlight

Little gem magnolia performs best with six or more hours of sunlight daily. Morning light is ideal with partial shade, two to six hours, in the afternoon.

Temperature & Humidity

Little gem magnolia trees will thrive in the US Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7 to 10a. It can survive cold temperatures but not below -10°F (-23.3). Such conditions can lead to the mortality of gem magnolia trees.

Watering

Little gem magnolia handles wet conditions better than many magnolia varieties and needs moist soil when newly planted.

Water deeply once or twice weekly after transplanting. The tree develops some drought tolerance at maturity and should only need to be irrigated once a week during summer months.

Mulching helps preserve soil moisture and discourage weeds. Little gem magnolia is also tolerant of salt but does not do well in urban conditions with heavy air pollution. Pot-grown trees may need to be watered daily during the hottest days of summer.

Soil

Although the tree is adaptable to soil type, a slightly acidic pH of 5.5 to 6.5 is important and the planting location must drain well. Organically rich, loamy soil is ideal so consider working in aged compost at planting time.

Fertilizing

It’s best to fertilize your magnolias with a slow-release fertilizer with a balanced formulation of 10-10-10 or 8-8-8. Apply this during the Spring season to help boost the tree’s growth and produce new foliage.

Make sure the soil is well-watered after fertilizer application.

Pruning

Prune Little Gem after flowers fade focusing on dead and damaged branches. Keep pruning to a minimum and maintain branches at ground level, cutting back the upper portion of the tree to form a triangular shape.

If you plan to grow Little Gem in a large container, it may become necessary to remove the tree from its pot and prune back the roots every several years.

Propagation

Because little gem magnolia is a hybrid, the only way to propagate this tree is through cuttings. This is most successful in spring with softwood cuttings as the tree is putting out new growth. Gather together small pots with drainage holes, plastic coverings, a well-draining potting mix, and a small hand pruner. Follow these steps:

  • Use the hand pruner to remove a 6 to 8-inch softwood cutting of new growth. Make your cut just above a leaf node.
  • Remove all leaves except for the top one or two. If the remaining leaves are large, cut them in half horizontally and dispose of the top half.
  • Dip the bottom portion of the cutting in rooting hormone, making sure to cover exposed leaf nodes.
  • Fill pots with slightly moistened potting mixture. Use your finger or a pencil to make a narrow hole in the center.
  • Insert the bottom portion of the cutting into the hole and gently fill in around it with potting mixture to keep it upright.
  • Cover the pot with plastic. You may need to add supports to keep the plastic from touching the top of the cutting.
  • Place pots in a warm location that receives plenty of indirect sunlight and keeps soil moist.
  • Roots form in several weeks. When they’ve grown several inches long and begun to develop a strong system, seedlings can be potted up into larger containers or moved into the garden

Potting and Repotting 

When starting from cuttings, you’ll want to move your little gem magnolia seedlings into pots one or two sizes larger depending on how quickly they develop.

This is generally a slow-growing tree that takes about 20 years to grow 20 feet tall so moving your plant to a larger container should be necessary only every few years.

Overwintering

Little gem magnolia is hardy down to -5°F and should stay evergreen in USDA growing zones 6 to 10. If temperatures drop lower, cover your tree with a frost cover.

Mulch also protects roots from frost damage although the tree may lose some leaves. Move potted plants to a protected indoor location such as an unheated porch or garage when possible.

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Magnolia trees are vulnerable to several diseases and common insects. Leaf spot, blight, and verticillium wilt all can affect foliage causing dark spots, yellowing, and loss of leaves.

Unfortunately, there is no remedy for verticillium wilt which can be diagnosed with a soil test. The tree should be removed and disposed of. Pruning out diseases and damaged branches is the best course for leaf spot and blight.

Aphids, thrips, and scales feed on the sap of little gem causing leaves to curl inward. Applications of neem oil or insecticidal soap usually remedy this problem.

Caterpillars leave behind ragged and chewed foliage. Look for and remove egg masses on the undersides of leaves and the tree’s trunk. Prevention is the best approach.

Give your little gem magnolia the best growing conditions including plenty of sunlight and fertilizer in the spring. A healthy tree is better able to survive these adverse conditions.

Common Problems 

Leaf Shedding in Spring

Although evergreen, little gem may shed leaves in early spring prior to blooming. The tree is putting energy into flowering rather than producing new foliage – so this is not a big concern. Once flowers appear, new leaves will begin to emerge.

Leaf Branch and Dieback

Dieback is usually caused by extreme cold weather or temperature fluctuations in spring. Frost damage can result in some loss of branches and leaves. Wait until the danger of frost has passed then prune out damage to allow the tree to direct energy into producing new healthy growth.

Discolored Flowers

Temperature extremes can also cause the bright white flowers to take on a yellow or brownish cast. Little gem blooms for a long period so some blooms will naturally fade over time. If flowers emerge discolored this could be caused by too much heat or cold. Choose a planting location with some afternoon shade and give your tree the correct amount of water and fertilizer.

III. Types of Small Magnolia Trees

A number of varieties of magnolia trees are available with different foliage and flower forms and colors. Here are several other small types that fit well in any home landscape.

  • Saucer Magnolia, M. X soulangeana: Grown as a deciduous tree or large shrub, this magnolia is fast-growing with fragrant, tulip-shaped flowers in deep magenta-purple with white centers. Grows 15 to 20 feet tall.
  • M. stellataStar Magnolia,: Flowers with multiple petals in white to pink bloom profusely in spring. A number of cultivars are available in small sizes maturing at 15 to 20 feet tall.
  • Magnolia Ann, M. liliflora nigra, : Part of the magnolia “Little Girl” series, Ann grows to just 10 feet tall producing large 4-inch chalice-shaped blossoms with purplish red exteriors and pale pink interiors.
  • Teddy Bear Magnolia, M. grandiflora ‘Teddy Bear’: Another dwarf version of the Southern magnolia, Teddy Bear grows more slowly than Little Gem, produces larger blooms, and is considered more disease resistant than Little Gem.

IV. Uses and Benefits 

Best used as a lawn specimen or at the back of a border where space allows. Good for along large driveways. It can even be used as a topiary subject, hedge screen and is a useful street tree. If kept well fed and watered, it makes a great large scale container plant. It is easy to keep compact with regular pruning if required in a small space. It is commonly used in floristry for greenery.

Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’) Details

Common name Southern Magnolia, Little Gem, Little Gem Magnolia
Botanical name Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem'
Plant type Perennial
Hardiness zone 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
Growth rate Slow
Harvest time Summer
Height 15 ft. 0 in. - 20 ft. 0 in.
Width 15 ft. 0 in. - 20 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Flower color Cream/Tan
Leaf color Brown/Copper