11 Reasons Why You’ll Love Magnolia ‘Little Gem’

Thinking of adding a Magnolia to your garden? Why not try 'Little Gem' this growing season? This small magnolia has beautiful white flowers, and has a more compact growing profile. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss walks through the reasons this plant can be a star in your garden!

Magnolia 'Little Gem' Growing in garden with dark green foliage

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When gardeners think of magnolia trees, most immediately think of great Southern Magnolia, or Magnolia Grandiflora. This tree is a fixture in the hearts of a great many folks who grew up in the Southern United States. It is the state flower of both Mississippi and Louisiana, and it has a highly popular scent. Its large, fragrant flowers have an almost unreal quality unrivaled among other flowering evergreens.

This fantastic tree has only one caveat for most gardeners, it is positively enormous. Much too large for a great many gardens to accommodate. This is where ‘Little Gem’ takes center stage. This beautiful, and not so little, dwarf variety of grandiflora has a substantial number of qualities which make it a wonderful choice, both for the smaller garden, as well as larger landscapes.

Dwarf magnolia trees are quite hardy and easy to grow, all they need is a good spot, a little fertilizer and time. They grow into wonderful shade trees, and focal points in a garden landscape, as well as making great hedges and most producing wonderful flowers for cutting. ‘Little Gem’ is no exception. Here are 11 reasons you just must check out this sweet dwarf magnolia with a big personality.

The Flowers

The flowers on this shrub are blooming in a bright white color, with green foliage at the base of the plant.
The flowers on this variety are white and absolutely stunning.

The best thing about any magnolia tree is always going to be the flowers. Magnolia flowers come in many shapes, sizes and colors and bring all that color and beauty to the landscape they inhabit. ‘Little Gem’ is a particular standout in the flower department.

Although it is considered a dwarf variety, the flowers did not get that memo, as they far outperform expectations for any tree its size. The blooms are medium to large sized (4”-8” in diameter) and the same creamy with color of other, larger grandiflora varieties. A large yellow carpel stands out in the center.

The beauty of the individual flowers is compounded by the length of time the blossoms occur for. ‘Little Gem’ is known for the habit of blooming for up to 6 months out of the year, blooming from May through October. 

Because of the small size of the variety, flowers are closer to the ground than other, larger specimens, and easier to cut as a result. The smaller size of the tree makes the already large flowers appear even more oversized and dramatic.

The Fragrance

Fragrant flower blooming on the middle of a shrub. The flower smells very sweet according to gardeners. The white bloom is wide open exposing the yellow center stamen.
The flowers on this Magnolia are extremely fragrant.

Little Gem’s flowers are more than just a pretty face on this wonderful tree. Much like the larger Southern Magnolia, ‘Little Gem’ has wonderfully fragrant blooms. The smell can be described as lemony and floral and is quite evocative of its larger cousins.

This classic scented magnolia has the fragrance highly sought after by perfumers and candlemakers, alike. The fragrance is richly floral, but fresh and citrusy at the same time, which makes a beautiful combination.

A single cut blossom from this tree can fill a room with its wonderful fragrance. The scent is strong and lingering.  The blooms make great cut flowers, and even a single bloom in a crystal bowl makes quite a statement.

The Early Blooming Age

Shrub blooming in garden with green foliage and bright white flower. The foliage is dark green, and lush.
These flowers can start blooming within two to three years.

Most full-sized magnolias take quite some time to mature enough for blooms. Some varieties can take up to 20 years before there will be any significant blooming season. This long maturation time can be a downside for some gardeners.

This is not the case with ‘Little Gem’. Although it is considered a slow growing variety, this vareity blooms earlier than most magnolias.

In fact, this variety is known specifically for its abundance of blooms at a very young age. You can expect to see blooms on this pretty evergreen within 2-3 years. The payoff for caring for one of these sweet trees comes early and is quite substantial.

The Similarity to Southern Magnolia

Southern magnolia is blooming in the garden during the season.
‘Little Gem’ resembles the Southern Magnolia in a smaller form.

The grand Southern Magnolia is one of the most stunning and imposing specimens of the genus. From its waxen and velvet leaves to its dinner plate sized, creamy white blooms and wonderful fragrance, it is a sight to behold.

But growing upwards to 80’ tall and wide, it is simply not a tree that all gardeners have space for. A tree that size needs lots of room to grow and spread.

‘Little Gem’ does a splendid impersonation of this glorious tree, all tied up in a neat, 20’-25’ package. A far more manageable size for most garden landscapes. At this size, you might as well plant two! This magnolia has a more upright carriage than its larger cousin as well, so it fits perfectly, even in narrow spaces.

The Size

Low growing white blooming shrub growing in garden. The flower is blooming and exposes the yellow center stamen.
The smaller stature makes this variety a great choice for small spaces.

‘Little Gem’ is classified as a dwarf variety, but it’s important to bear in mind that the full-sized version of this species is absolutely enormous. This Magnolia may be small by comparison to the Southern Magnolia, but compared to many other dwarf magnolia varieties, it’s really quite a nice sized tree.

This lovely variety will reach around 20’-25’ feet tall and 10’-15’ wide at maturity, which typically takes about 20 years. It is considered slow growing because it only grows about 1’ per year, but keep in mind that early blooming age. That factor really sets this variety apart, in a good way.

The Shape

Plant that is growing in garden with green foliage and white blooms. The shrub has some green leaves and some are more brown.
This variety has an upright growth habit compared to others that tend to branch out in width.

‘Little Gem’ has a wonderful, upright growth habit. Rather than the grand spread of the larger varieties of grandiflora, this dwarf variety is much taller than it is wide, making it much more versatile. You can have the look of a magnolia, close to the home, without having to plan for an expansive spread.

This narrow shape makes this Magnolia a great choice for planting close to a house or other structure. It also makes it possible to bring the charm of a Southern Magnolia to a more urban setting. ‘Little Gem’ can be a bit intolerant of pollution, however, this is one of very few downsides to this lovely tree.

The Leaves

Green leaves growing on a young shrub. They are bright green and do not have any blooms.
The leaves on this variety are a striking green color with a waxy texture.

Classic magnolia leaf garlands are a staple in the South at Christmas time. If you’ve never seen one of these lovely garlands, a quick search will undoubtedly leave you wanting one for yourself.

The leaves of grandiflora varieties of magnolia are the most prized for this purpose. Large and oblong, the leaves are waxy and green on top, and have a leathery feel. The underside of the leaves is a striking contrast. The color underneath is a deep rusty brown, and unlike the glossy finish on top, the bottom of the leaves have a velvety texture.

‘Little Gem’ is no exception to the grandiflora species. Its leaves are the same beautiful mix of colors and textures, on a slightly smaller scale. These large, dense leaves also make these trees a wonderful shade tree and privacy screen.

The Fruit

Fruiting shrub growing in garden during blooming season. The fruits are coming up on the ends of the stem of the plant.
This variety can actually fruit, although it is not edible.

Did you know that magnolias produce fruit in addition to their glorious flowers? The fruit of a magnolia is not appetizing for humans, so it’s not highly sought after for human consumption. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its benefits to the gardener.

Many species of birds love to feast on magnolia fruit. If, like me, you love to draw wild birds to your garden, a magnolia tree will do just that. Not only will they enjoy the fruits, but they will love nesting in this sturdy little tree. A magnolia provides a very secure spot for birds to nest.

The Privacy

Gorgeous white flower blooming in the garden. The plant is providing privacy and keeping some items behind it out of view.
This variety also provides privacy in addition to their stunning blooms.

The shape and size of this magnolia make it ideal for planting a privacy screen. Several of these plants in a row will grow into a nice, tall, compact privacy hedge. The evergreen foliage is nice and dense, allowing very low visibility. Your neighbors definitely won’t complain about this privacy hedge.

The Hardiness

Hardy plant is blooming in garden. The leaves are dark green and have a waxy texture.
The hardiness of this plant makes it a garden favorite.

Magnolias are quite hardy in general, with only a few varieties that are intolerant to urban pollution or have a difficult time with a wide range of soil types. ‘Little Gem’ is very adaptable though, with the exception of significant air pollution. It is considered hardy in zones 6-10 and will remain evergreen in temperatures as low as 5°F.

This Magnolia prefers full sun, but will tolerate part shade, particularly in warmer climates. While they prefer loamy soil, they are tolerant of many soil conditions, including those high in sand and clay content. As long as the soil has good drainage, this tree can usually adapt.

‘Little Gem’ needs close to no pruning. In the early years, some trimming of the bottom branches will encourage upward, treelike growth, but this tree does that on its own for the most part. Magnolia tree’s fertilizing needs are modest. Three times a year, you simply spread a balanced fertilizer around the base of the tree and water generously.

The Evergreen Nature

Evergreen tree still growing in the garden during the wintertime. The plant has white blooms and the leaves are a bit more dry due to the growing season.
The evergreen nature of these trees means the foliage will stay green year round.

Did I mention that ‘Little Gem’ is an evergreen tree? While evergreen magnolias are less showy in their blooming season than some deciduous species, they have the advantage of retaining their beautiful, dense foliage year-round!

With Little Gem’s early and long duration blooming times, it rivals the flower production of some deciduous varieties that only bloom for a few weeks out of the year.

Magnolia’s year-round foliage make a wonderful home for non-migrating birds, and create a wonderful backdrop for winter blooming evergreens, like camellias. Evergreen also means less leaf cleanup. While this tree will shed leaves from time to time during the year, there is no major leaf drop, so the cleanup is never a terrible chore, but rather an occasional once over.

Final Thoughts

If you are not convinced of the merits of the Magnolia ‘Little Gem’, I encourage you to visit your local nursery and check out this sweet tree with your own eyes. With so many great qualities, it is not surprising that this variety has increased rapidly in popularity in recent years.

From its ideal shape and size to its beautiful, long lasting, and enduring blooms, this Magnolia lives up to its name and is a credit to its species. If you love the look of the majestic Southern Magnolia, but don’t love the enormous space commitment, give ‘Little Gem’ a try, we think you will not regret it!

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