Little Gem Magnolia – precious or semi-precious?

When the Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ first hit the market, prayers were answered.  Now we were able to have all the grace and glamour of the full sized Southern Magnolia grandiflora, but one that would fit in the gardens of mere mortals, not just estates. november-30-2008-0351

The Little Gem was truly a precious gem that entered the market place. Over the years, they have been used and misused.

Just recently, during my carpool ride, I noticed such misuse that I felt compelled to write about it.


After viewing the  photo above, please give me your opinion as to how this happened.

My questions are:

  1. Are these just bad specimens?
  2. Why are there so few limbs?
  3. Not all Little Gems are so bare looking.   Should the nursery have listed these trees on their availability list?
  4. Should the landscaper have chosen these for his client?
  5. If he did, how did he explain their effect to his client? How did the story go, “Oh they’ll fill in and cover the utility housing nicely. You’ll see, pay me, bye–e.”

Tell me what you think!



  1. I think the utility company did a quick fix with the stock plants they had sitting around or sent a few non-tree knowledge folks out to buy a few. Or did our last extremely thirsty drought make them lose their leaves? Or is the soil poor? Probably all of the above as you well know I’m sure.

    I want a Little Gem. I need some Magnolia leaves for Christmas decorating.

  2. I’d like to introduce you to a ‘Teddy Bear’. I just love this bear. I’ll post this improved ‘Little Gem’ next week.

  3. tina said

    Helen, Do you know how long they have been in that location and is it full sun? With the pines in the background I am wondering if they are in the shade. If so that could account for the shape of them. Maybe they just need time to grow in, of course they are planted too closely. That will be a problem.

  4. The sun is good and they have only been in since March. This is an example of what I’ve seen a lot of lately, specimens going in that are not looking their best. I know the industry has been suffering, especially here with our drought in 2007. Also, homeowners are not aware of how they are suppose to look. They look at photos and see them in the hood, and the tag says that’s what they have so…. One would just assume these will do fine. Tina, I’m coming at this from a garden coaching perspective. Just along this stretch to get my kids to school, there are three other examples. And you are right, with everything else, they are planted too close. I feel bad for the HO since they just did a renovation of a home, but not the garden, cept this.

  5. Les said

    Although ‘Teddy Bear’ has not been out long enough for me to see a mature specimen, I do like the looks of the foliage better. The leaf is broader and more rounded at the end, and it has great “felt” on the underside.

    My question for the unknown landscaper would be – are these really the most appropriate plants to screen a utility box? In a few years (if these weak specimens live) they will be much taller and more than likely their lower trunks will be bare, nicely framing the utility box instead of screening it.

    I only hope that it was a misguided homeowner who planted these trees and not some guy who owns a truck and a chainsaw, thinking that qualifies him as a landscaper.

  6. Exactly and me too, Les!

  7. Grumpy Gardener said

    I think it’s obvious that either the homeowner or landscaper did a really bad job of planting. My guess is that the trees were the cheapest ones available, they weren’t properly planted, and the soil they’re growing in isn’t very good. Plus, if the summer after planting was really dry, that would definitely have an adverse effect on new trees, especially if they weren’t watered deeply every now and again.

    As far as being planted too closely, well, the object was to hide the utility box. I’m not saying better plants couldn’t have been chosen, but I’ve also seen a screen of ‘Little Gem’ maintained at 10-12 feet that looked really nice — though it’s hard to imagine these ever making that leap.

    A final point — I think garden comminicators need to spread the word that even though ‘Little Gem’ is marketed as a dwarf, it isn’t. It just starts out looking that way. I planted a 5-gallon plant 10 years ago that’s now pushing 18 feet.

  8. At the JC Raulston Arboretum, J.C. planted a row of ‘Little Gem’ as a hedge to delineate the winter garden from another area in the arboretum. This was probably 15 years ago, but this is just a WAG. Over the years, the trees worked beautifully as a screen. As the importance of the winter garden grew in stature and space, we removed all but one which remained as a specimen.

    I believe u’re right Grumpy, these poor fellows will be hard pressed to make the leap to match their intent. Given the corner location, I assume they also wanted height for privacy in addition to hiding the ugly utilities box.

    And right again, about their size. I have a client with one and it is huge. It was planted before my time in this garden. While the space in which it planted can support the tree, the height doesn’t work, requiring the admirer to have to look up at it. Not good.

    Gee, I wonder if the owner of these poor gems is one of my readers;-}

  9. Grumpy Gardener said

    You’ll find out when someone “rolls” your yard every night for a week. Once I was doing a story about “crepe murder” and took some very good pictures of the butchered stumps. A few months later, I was sitting on an airplane and the guy in the seat next to me figured out who I was. He said, “Oh, so you’re the one who wrote the story about crepe murder. Those crepe myrtles in the photo are in front of my house.”

  10. You are so right Gumpy, we live in a small world. Just this holiday, at a potluck function, with a 100 people there, I’m in the dessert line and spy a fruit cake. So I say to the lady in front of me, “You think that fruit cake is fresh this year or was it recycled from years past?” To which she replies, “Oh, it’s fresh, I brought it.”

  11. I see Lil Gem’s like this at wholesale nurseries when the lot has been picked over. They look like that because they’ve been growing in cramped conditions and so they don’t fill in nicely. Magnolias take pruning well so depending on the individual tree I’ve improved specimens like this by either cutting the side branches back real hard–sometimes just leaving a few inches sticking out from the trunk. Lil Gem can be grown as a very attractive narrow columnar specimen with this kind of pruning. In which case an array of bushy shrubs like gardenias or indica azaleas, etc. would be better if the light is right.

    Or IF you have the time, and the specimen is really outta whack, you can cut the whole tree down to about knee or hip high and force new, better balanced side branches out. So yes, either way, these trees can be saved with some patience and judicious pruning.

    As to plants described as dwarfs, in horticulture that term doesn’t always mean “short” it often just means “slow”. Many dwarfs will eventually get as big as the original species, but they just take longer to get there.

    Frank Hyman

  12. Thanks for stopping by Frank. I can’t believe our paths have yet to cross. Someday soon I hope. H.

  13. Joyce Kidd said

    My landscaper just planted 10 Little Gems behind a planter wall. They are approximately 7-8 ft in height now and are spaced anywhere from 3-1/2 ft to 5 ft. apart. I’m concerned they are planted too close together if they’re eventual spread is 8-10 ft. Also, they are “contained” by a continuous planter that runs the length behind the wall. Will this in any way hinder their growth?

  14. Hey Joyce, its hard to say if the roots of the trees will hinder the container. Certainly, they could interfere. With regards to the tree spacing, it depends on the look you have in mind. J.C. Rauslton from NC State University experiemented with Little Gems as a sheared hedge in the Winter [JCRA] Garden where I volunteer. It was effective and they respond well to cutting back as a hedge. If the design was to be individual trees, then they are obviously too close together. I wouldn’t be too worry though. Your landscaper may have put them in now to fill the space for now and plans to cut out ever other one when they gain some age. I can’t say.

  15. Joyce Kidd said

    Thanks for your response, gwc. I don’t think my landscaper has any intention of removing any of the trees in the future, and with respect to cutting them back as a hedge, not sure who would be responsible for doing that. It’s not something I have any expertise in, nor do I trust my gardener to do it properly. They just look so crowded now and when I learned how tall they could grow, and their expected spread, it seemed crazy to put so many trees so close together in a confined space. Frank commented that they don’t fill in nicely when they grow in cramped conditions, so that’s another concern. I’m afraid I’m learning that my landscaper is more the “pay me the money, now ‘bye” type and there is no grand plan. Sigh.

  16. Willie Walton said

    My gardener planted my little gem one year ago. It was six feet tall and a year later, it stills is six feet tall. It does flower well with about ten blooms right now. It was planted with a circular root barrier to satisfy my association to control root problems in my small lawn. Will this root barrier be like a pot and stunt my little gems growth? Should I remove part of the root barrier to give the roots a chance to grow away from the root ball? Or, just leave the tree alone and it will grow just fine with the root barrier in place.

    • Willie, I would worry about the tree not growing after a year to be a problem b/c of the root barrier. I may take a year or two start growing. But yes, the root barrier could act like a container. I would be concerned with girdling. I have no recommendation for your though. It would be best to contact an arborist.

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