From the UT Gardens
November 2016 Plant of the Month: Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’
Submitted by Carol Reese, UT Extension horticulture specialist, Western Region
You’ve seen them. Huge southern magnolias that have engulfed the entire front yard, often leading to criminal acts of pruning.
Luckily, the southern magnolia has demonstrated a lot of genetic diversity and over the decades there have been many selections made for compact growth habits. A number of cultivars have emerged with smaller forms, allowing them to be useful for the smaller landscapes and in more design applications. These would include, ‘Little Gem’, ‘Hasse’, ‘Alta’, ‘Kay Parris’, and two more trademarked under the names Teddy Bear™ and Greenback™. These forms vary a bit on foliage density and color and overall form and size, so investigate them further to see which appeals to you and fits your design intentions.
One cultivar has a characteristic that may persuade you that it is the “Southern Belle” you ask to dance in your landscape. This cultivar, Little Gem, likes to bloom, and bloom and bloom. It is noted for flowering generously even when still a small plant, recently propagated. More amazingly, once it flowers in early summer along with the other southern magnolias, it doesn’t stop when they do. Though not as profuse as its first flush of bloom, flowers will continue to be produced sporadically right up to hard frost. It is a rare day that you will fail to find at least a few flowers on Little Gem, so be sure to place it where you can enjoy the heavenly fragrance.
It can also be an interesting contributor to a mixed screen planting, with its bold texture and oval to pyramidal habit. The foliage is also spectacular, contrasting with other cut greenery in winter, and can be used to make a lustrous Christmas wreath.
Southern magnolia is native to the deep south, and in the wild it is usually found in wet soils and in the shade of large trees. That is a clue to its tolerance of a wide range of landscape settings. However, in shade, Little Gem will not flower as prolifically, and the growth habit will be reminiscent of a narrow, sparse Christmas tree.
In full sun, it will make a dense oval 20 to 25 feet in height, with a width about half that. Although it is hardy throughout Tennessee, in the coldest regions it would be wise to plant Little Gem in spring in time to get acclimated should a severe winter follow.
In Jackson, a Little Gem specimen can be found in the screen demonstration west of the building and in a parking lot bed at the northeast corner of the building. Another is found in the central courtyard. At the UT Gardens site in Crossville, you can find a Little Gem near the office building.
The UT Gardens includes plant collections located in Knoxville, Jackson and Crossville. Designated as the official botanical garden for the State of Tennessee, the collections are part of the UT Institute of Agriculture. The gardens’ mission is to foster appreciation, education and stewardship of plants through garden displays, educational programs and research trials. The gardens are open during all seasons and free to the public. For more information, see the Gardens website: utgardens.tennessee.edu
Through its mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. ag.tennessee.edu
Carol Reese, UT Extension horticulture specialist, Western Region, firstname.lastname@example.org