Little Gem Magnolia

I have an intense love-hate relationship with magnolias, and especially with the Magnolia grandiflora – the “dwarf” magnolia also known as the “Little Gem.”

Actually, my biggest problem is not so much with the plant, but with uneducated landscapers who plant them in all the wrong places. And I have an even bigger problem with some unscrupulous tree purveyors who convince customers that these are “dwarf” versions of a magnolia. Granted, they are half the size and width of a standard southern magnolia at maturity. But at 25 feet tall and 10-12 feet wide when fully grown, I hardly think they should be described as “dwarf.”

For those who really know their business when it comes to trees for Houston landscapes, there is a lot of head-shaking and palms to foreheads going on.That’s because classifying the Little Gem as some sort of miniature magnolia causes all kinds of problems.

While a Little Gem may be smaller than a big mama magnolia, which is in the same grandiflora variety, it’s still a hardwood tree with a root system that’s always looking for moisture.So, when planted right up next to a foundation, they can die due to lack of water. Or, in an effort to stay alive, it will start taking moisture from beneath the foundation. In southeast Texas, that’s what causes 50% of expensive foundation problems.

I understand the thought behind using a Little Gem as an “accent tree,” but I think its root system and growth pattern make it anything but. If you’re in love with their flowers’ amazing aroma, just don’t plant it within 15 feet of a foundation, and especially not at the corner of a house. For me, an accent tree can actually be out in the middle of other trees or shrubs, making it stand apart from other landscape plants.

I also appreciate this evergreen’s dark, glossy foliage. But those thick, pointy leaves are another issue I have with magnolias - they can damage lawn mower blades if you’re a mulch mower. Gathering them up to bag is nearly impossible. And using them in a compost pile isn’t easy either, because they are extraordinarily difficult to shred.


  • They are shorter than most standard magnolias
  • Dark, glossy evergreen leaves
  • Medium growth pattern: not too slow, not too fast
  • Beautiful, with fragrant flowers
  • Deer resistant


  • Dangerous next to a foundation
  • Looks horrible when pruned from the bottom up
  • Looks horrible when deprived of water
  • Looks horrible when planted too close to a house, will grow lop-sided
  • Can’t handle inner-city pollution

So, the Little Gem has just as many positives as negatives, and now you understand my love-hate relationship with them. If you’d like to discuss them further, give me a call on the GardenLine show 6-10 a.m. this weekend on NewsRadio 740 KTRH.

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