Virtually all types of Magnolias are loved by gardeners for their beautiful, large flowers. The southern magnolia is also loved for its beautiful foliage, with glossy, deep-green, evergreen leaves and fascinating brown ‘fur’ on the underside. The only thing is, planting a southern magnolia is an investment, as it takes quite a few years before your tree reaches sufficient maturity and size to begin to flower.
Those beautiful flowers are pure white, with thick petals and a rich perfume, so they are certainly worth waiting for, but how nice it would be to have blooms sooner, when your tree was only three or four feet tall. With the Little Gem Southern Magnolia that is exactly what you get, because this unique variety of magnolia blooms while still young, and continues to bloom every summer as it grows into a beautiful specimen tree. So, no more waiting for blooms – almost as soon as you plant this tree it will begin to bloom for you.
Blooming while young is not the only virtue of the Little Gem Southern Magnolia. As gardens become smaller we need smaller trees to match. The original southern magnolia, which can grow 60 feet tall and be 20 to 30 feet across, is too large for many gardens, while the Little Gem, as its name suggests, stays much smaller and more compact, growing to between 12 and 25 feet tall and only 6 to 8 feet across. It can be grown as a large, multi-stem shrub, or with a little pruning while young it can easily be turned into a tree with a sturdy central trunk.
Using the Little Gem Southern Magnolia on Your Property
The Little Gem Southern Magnolia is a versatile plant that can be used in many different ways in the garden. Because of its smaller size, it makes a great specimen tree in the lawn for a smaller garden. It is gorgeous planted as a beautiful background to other shrubs and flowering plants. It also makes an elegant avenue, spaced out along a driveway in pairs, with one on either side. If you need a screen, this tree is ideal, since it stays compact, but is rapid growing, dense and evergreen, with the bonus of beautiful flowers. It also makes a great specimen for a large planter or container – on a large terrace or beside the pool, where it can be grown for years without becoming too large.
Choose a sunny or partially-shaded spot to plant your Little Gem Southern Magnolia. If your garden is well-supplied with water then full sun is idea, but in drier gardens some shade will be beneficial to your tree, especially during summer.
The Little Gem Southern Magnolia grows in all the warmer parts of the country, from zone 7 to zone 10. It will survive winter temperatures as low as 0 degrees without any problems at all. In all these areas it can be grown as a specimen tree in your lawn, or as a screen in the open.
In colder areas, you can still grow this tree in a sheltered spot, and one great way to enjoy the southern magnolia in zone 6, and perhaps even in the warmer parts of zone 5, is to grow it against the south-facing wall of your home. Even in a well-insulated home some heat is lost through the walls, and this will protect your tree on those chilly nights.
Grow the tree in the technique called espalier, where you stretch wires along the wall about 18 inches apart, and tie the branches to the wires as they grow. This keeps the plant flat against the wall where it is sheltered from the coldest temperatures. When the weather is at its coldest you can additionally drape white insulating landscape cloth over the plant for extra protection. A south or west facing wall is best, as on sunny days – which are often the coldest in winter – the heat of the sun will be absorbed by the wall and protect your tree at night.
About the Little Gem Southern Magnolia
The Little Gem Southern Magnolia grows to a height of between 12 and 25 feet, depending on the location and local conditions. It forms a large, multi-stem shrub, or with a little pruning while young it is easy to develop a trunk of any height you wish. The bark is smooth and light-grey in color, which is an especially attractive feature if you have chosen to prune up your plant into a tree form.
Leaves on the Little Gem Southern Magnolia
The leaves are 5 to 6 inches long, which is smaller than those of wild southern magnolia trees, but they have the same brown ‘felt’ on the underside, which makes a beautiful contrast with the rich-green glossy surface of the upper side. Each spring fresh new leaves will appear, and shortly after that some older leaves will yellow and fall, which is perfectly normal. The tree is evergreen, so its bold, glossy leaves are a feature all year round.
Flowers on the Little Gem Southern Magnolia
The first flowers will appear in May or June, and will continue to be produced for most of the summer, so that you have a continuous show of bloom for 4 to 6 months of the year. What makes this particular variety of southern magnolia so special is that flowering begin early in its life – no waiting for maturity is necessary. Trees that are just 3 or 4 feet tall will bloom profusely.
The flowers on the Little Gem Southern Magnolia are magnificent. They are about 6 inches across, with thick pure-white petals opening almost flat, showing the central parts of the flower, and releasing a rich perfume into the air. In fall you will see the seed pods, which look a little like pine cones, and open to show bright-red seeds, which hang briefly from a thin thread before falling to the ground.
The southern magnolia tree will grow well in most soils, from sand to clay and from acidic to alkaline. It will do best in soil with a good organic content, so add plenty of rich organic material when planting your tree, and apply an annual mulch of organic material over the root zone as well. Water your new arrival regularly for the early growing seasons, but after that the tree is moderately resistant to drought.
Another special feature of this tree is its tolerance to salt spray and saline soils. This means it can be planted close to the ocean, making it ideal for coastal properties or seaside cottages. Not only will it grow well, but if you plant a screen of southern magnolia, it will block the salt spray all year round, making it possible to grow a much wider range of plants in the main part of your garden, behind the protection of your magnolia screen.
Pests and Diseases
This tree has no significant pests and diseases, so it will always be healthy and vigorous. It is a long-lived tree that will be a part of your garden for many, many years, becoming more and more beautiful over time.
Choosing the Right Magnolia Tree
The Little Gem Southern Magnolia is a special selection of the southern magnolia, which is smaller in size and early blooming. These kinds of special garden selections cannot be grown from seed, since the seedlings will be very variable, and almost always significantly inferior to this special tree. Because of this, cheaper seedling trees will not give you the result you want. Our trees are grown by taking selected stem pieces from correctly identified ‘Little Gem’ trees and attaching them to the roots of seedling magnolia trees. This method needs skilled workers, and it takes longer, but the result is a perfect copy of the original tree, with all its special qualities intact.
Using Little Gem Southern Magnolias as a Screen or Hedge
The Little Gem Southern Magnolia is an excellent choice for a screen up to 20 feet tall, especially in warmer areas. The outstanding beauty of this tree means you have a screen that is not only functional in giving you privacy, but spectacularly beautiful, especially throughout the summer months of bloom. All year round the large, glossy leaves make this one of the most beautiful screening trees available. It is practical too, because it will block noise and dust as well as salt spray from the ocean.
Using Little Gem Southern Magnolias as an Informal Barrier or Screen
Because this is already a tree with a regular and balanced form, it is ideal for a screen that needs no trimming yet looks well-groomed at all times. Space your trees 5 feet apart for a quick screen, or up to 8 feet apart if your need is not so urgent. A wider spacing is also more suitable if you want a screen that is over 12 feet tall, as the trees need more width available to reach their full height.
A single row will give good results, but for a very dense screen, plant a double row of trees. Space the rows 4 feet apart, and space the trees in each row 8 feet apart. Stagger the planting in a zigzag fashion, so that each tree stands in the space between two trees in the other row.
Using Little Gem Southern Magnolias as a Formal Hedge
It is also easy to make a beautiful formal hedge with the Little Gem Southern Magnolia. Plant your trees 4 feet apart in a straight row, and always set out all the trees before planting them, so that you can space them evenly along the row. Use a tight string to keep the line straight. Digging a trench for the planting rather than individual holes makes this easier to do. Do some light trimming while the plants are still young to make them dense – this way you will never have to cut the trees back hard.
Planting Little Gem Southern Magnolias
Prepare the areas for planting your trees by adding a good quantity of organic material to the soil. This could be garden compost, animal manure, rotted leaves, peat moss, or other types of organic material you may have available. Dig this well into the soil to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Prepare an area 2 to 3 feet across for specimens, or a row 3 feet wide for a screen.
If you are planting a screen, space out the trees carefully along the row, using a tight string to keep them straight. Place the first and last tree at a distance from the ends that is half the spacing you are using between the plants. Once you have the trees on the ground, make any minor adjustments to the spacing so that every plant is the same distance apart – this will give you screen a great look – uneven planting is not attractive.
Dig a hole in your prepared ground the same depth as the pot, but twice the width. Make sure you have watered your pots thoroughly the night before planting. Remove the tree from the pot using a sharp knife, cut from top to bottom through any roots that are circling around the root ball. This prevents those roots strangling the trunk as they grow thicker.
Now place the tree in the hole you have dug. Put back about two-thirds of the soil, and firm it down around the roots. Fill the hole completely with water and wait for it to drain away. Then put back the rest of the soil, water again if the soil is dry, and put a mulch over the root zone, to reduce water loss and prevent weed growth.
Caring for Little Gem Southern Magnolia
You will want to water your new trees once a week during the first growing season. Soak each tree thoroughly, using a slow flow of water so that it soaks right down into the ground. Soak the area all around the tree, not just up against the trunk. Once your trees are established they only need watering during dry spells, but for maximum growth and development during the early years, regular watering during the growing season is recommended. These trees are drought-resistant once established, but they benefit from deep soaking during extended dry spells or in the hottest parts of summer.
Use a fertilizer for evergreen trees regularly for the fastest growth of your trees. Apply this according to the directions of the manufacturer, but normally fertilizer is best applied in spring just before new growth appears. A second feeding is often beneficial in early summer. Avoid fertilizing your trees late in the year if you live in cooler planting zones.
You can use a water-soluble fertilizer on newly planted trees, as these give a quick response, but they need to be applied every few weeks for good results. For established plants a granular fertilizer applied once or twice a season feeds your trees over a longer period of time with less labor needed. Slow-release fertilizers are also available, and just one application a year is needed for a steady supply of nutrients for a full growing season. These types of fertilizers are a great labor saving product if you have a lot of trees to feed.
Pruning and Trimming
The Little Gem Southern Magnolia is naturally compact in growth, so it can be grown without trimming. This makes it a great low maintenance plant and a good choice for busy gardeners. There are a few situations where trimming may be needed, particularly if your space is limited.
If you want a trunk on your tree, for clearance or appearance, start while the tree is young by removing the lowest branches early in the life of your tree. Gradually trim up over a few seasons, not all at once. If you trim when branches are still thin the scars will quickly grow over, giving you an attractive, clean trunk. This is much better than removing large branches and leaving stumps that can take years to heal and can even become entry points for diseases.
If you need to trim larger plants, do this with pruners and loppers, rather than power trimmers. Trim your trees before new growth occurs, because new shoots that are cut will not flower. It can also be trimmed like a regular hedge, and with regular trimming the leaves will become smaller and more ‘hedge like’. Shape the hedge so that it is narrower at the top than at the bottom. This will keep the lowest parts of your hedge healthy and green right to the ground.
Since flowers form at the ends of new shoots, pruning in late winter before the new growth appears will mean that your hedge will still flower profusely. Start trimming with hand pruners while your trees are small, to build up dense growth. Once established you can trim normally with power trimmers.
Origins of the Little Gem Southern Magnolia
The southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, was first seen by the early settlers, growing wild in forests from North Carolina to Florida, and west to Texas. Over time this beautiful tree became associated with plantations and the southern way of life, and its rich perfume conjures up thoughts of long, hot summers and relaxing on the porch. Several different special forms of this tree have been developed by gardeners, to make the tree more suitable for different garden uses.
The variety called ‘Little Gem’ was developed by Warren Steed, who in 1952 collected seed from trees growing just outside the small town of Candor, North Carolina. He had a nursery, and there he grew those seeds into young plants so that he could assess their garden value. One plant in particular stood out, and in 1966 he released it as a new variety, giving it the name ‘Little Gem’. It proved very popular with southern gardeners, and has become the ‘go-to’ variety of southern magnolia for anyone wanting a more compact version of this wonderful and evocative tree.