Little Gem Magnolia

Photo Credit: Randy Lemmon

I have this intense LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP with magnolias, and even more recently with the supposed “dwarf” Magnolia we know in the business as the ‘Little Gem’, Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’. 

My biggest problem is not so much with the plant itself, but with the uneducated landscapers who plant them in all the wrong places. I have an even bigger problem with some unscrupulous tree purveyors, who convince customers that they are “dwarf” versions of a Magnolia.  Granted, they are half the size and width of a true southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). But at 25 feet high and 10-12 feet wide at maturity, I hardly think anyone would describe that as “dwarf.” 

For those in the business, and who truly know the right trees for Houston landscapes, there is a lot of head shaking going on and hands to the forehead.  That’s because with the misinformation or misrepresentation of the ‘Little Gem’ as some sort of miniature version is causing all kinds of problems.

While a ‘Little Gem’ is smaller than the big momma of Magnolias in the same grandiflora variety, it’s still a hardwood tree with a root system that is always looking for moisture.  Those planted right up next to the foundation could die because of a lack of water.  Or if that tree wants to do everything to keep itself alive, it will eventually start taking all the moisture from underneath the foundation.  Here in South Texas, desiccated soil under the foundation is what causes 50% of the foundation problems in this region. 

I understand the recommendation of the ‘Little Gem’ as an “accent” tree, but its root system and growth pattern make it anything but, in my opinion.  If you’re into it because of the amazing aroma of the flowers, just promise you won’t plant it within 15 feet of a foundation, and especially not on the corner of a house, just because you heard “accent tree.”  An accent tree, for me, can also be out in the middle of many other trees or shrubs that can be used to stand apart from other landscape plants.

I appreciate the dark, glossy foliage of this kind of evergreen.  But those too eventually lead to another issue I have with all Magnolias, and it would be with those thick pointy leaves.  They are impossible to bag up with a lawnmower and somewhat damaging to the blades if you’re a mulch mower.  Just gathering them up and tossing into a compost pile doesn’t help much either because those kinds of leaves are extraordinarily difficult to shred for a compost pile. 


  • It is shorter than most standard Magnolias
  • Dark, glossy, evergreen Leaves
  • Medium growth pattern: not too slow, not too fast
  • Beautiful with the fragrant flowers
  • Deer resistant


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

There are just as many positives as there are negatives for a ‘Little Gem’, and now you understand a bit more about my LOVE-HATE relationships with them.