Pick the Right Magnolia

June 13, 2013 | By | Comments (14)
Magnolia bloom

Huge, white blossoms fill the garden with fragrance. Photo by Steve Bender.

I just smelled a Southern icon and it wasn’t Elvis. No, it was the sweet perfume wafting from the enormous white blossoms of our native Southern magnolia. Is a magnolia a good choice for planting in your yard? It really depends on how much space you have.

Here’s the deal. A regular Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) gets big — really BIG. Grumpy’s talking 60 to 80 feet tall and 30 to 40 feet wide. That’s too big for a small yard. Even if you remove the lower branches (which I hate to see), its dense shade and surface roots make growing grass beneath it impossible. And a big tree drops leaves — not just in fall the way deciduous trees do, but every day, 365 days a year. I remember as a kid watching my grandfather police his yard every morning beneath two giant magnolias. He’d pick up leaves by spearing them using a wooden pole with a spike at the end.

Does this mean the average person can’t enjoy this iconic evergreen in their yard? By no means. You just have to pick the right kind of Southern magnolia for the spot you have in mind. One of the four following selections will be right for you, provided you have the proper growing conditions. Click here to see what Southern magnolia needs.

Magnolia seeds

Cones filled with bright red seeds replace the flowers in fall. Photo by Steve Bender.

Grumpy’s Top Picks
1. ‘Edith Bogue.’ If you think it’s too cold where you live to grow Southern magnolia, pick up ‘Edith Bogue.’ (Not Edith Bunker — she’s too much of a dingbat.)

Edith Bunker

“I didn’t know Abraham Lincoln was Jewish!” — Edith Bunker, “All in the Family.” Photo: CBS.

‘Edith Bogue’ is probably the most cold-hardy selection and reputed to survive temps well below zero with no damage. This makes it suitable for planting as far north as USDA Zone 5B, but it also takes the heat farther south. It grows into a pyramidal-shaped tree about 40 to 60 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide.

2. ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty.’ This is Grumpy’s favorite selection, not only because it’s about as cold-hardy as ‘Edith Bogue,’ but it’s also the most beautiful of all. It forms a dense, compact pyramid about 30 to 50 feet tall with very little open space between the branches. The leaves are extremely dark green and glossy above with striking fuzzy brown undersides. It also blooms at an early age (unnamed seedling trees can take 10 years or more to start blooming).

Southern magnolia

‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ magnolia. Photo: Tree-Land Nursery.

3. ‘Little Gem.’ The most widely planted selection, ‘Little Gem’ is a compact, slow-growing small tree whose leaves and flowers are about half the size of a regular magnolia’s. It’s not a dwarf, as many people believe, and eventually grows 20 to 25 feet tall. It starts blooming at a younger age than any other magnolia I know. I’ve seen it blooming at 3 feet tall. It also blooms off and on all summer. It’s great for growing in large containers or for planting as a tall screen or hedge. It’s cold-hardy to USDA Zone 7.

Little Gem magnolia

‘Little Gem’ magnolia in a nice container. Photo by Steve Bender.

4. ‘Teddy Bear.’ This is a slightly smaller version of ‘Little Gem,’ but with bigger flowers. It grows 15 to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide and is hardy to USDA Zone 7. This is Grumpy’s #1 choice for small gardens. Use it the same way that you use ‘Little Gem.’


  1. Steve Bender

    ‘Alta’ Southern magnolia is an improvement over ‘Little Gem.’ It is much more compact and dense while growing to about the same size at a similar rate.

    November 11, 2016 at 8:44 am
  2. Bobbie Bernard Ehrhardt Logan

    I wanted a Little Gem but received an Alta instead. Are they have similar features, growth and flowers?

    November 5, 2016 at 11:36 am
  3. Steve Bender

    Thanks for your report! Southern magnolia in Wisconsin! Who knew?

    September 28, 2016 at 7:47 am
  4. Debbie Boers

    We have 2 ‘Baby Grand’ Magnolias from monrovia. They only get about 12 ft tall and produce large blooms spring thru fall. We have them in 24 in tree pots and bring them into the greenhouse in winter ( we live in Wisconsin) They are about 20 yrs old and 2in dia trunks We keep total height including pot to about 8 ft We get about 40, 10 to 12 in blooms on each one every year. We put them outdoors when there’s no threat of frost as freezing temps damage tender new growths that start indoors in March. We also have 2 ‘Little Gem’ cultivars that don’t quite compare to the Baby Grands. We stared using Miracle Grow rose food recently and have seen noticeable improvement over other fertilizers.

    September 21, 2016 at 5:02 pm
  5. Summer Movie Night Dinner Party – Steel Magnolias – The Sage Leopard

    […] There are two huge ones in front, along with a tulip magnolia. Plus there is a little gem magnolia, a D.D. Blanchard magnolia and another tulip magnolia in the back. After the movie, we walked around the yard to show guests […]

    July 17, 2016 at 2:13 pm
  6. Peter

    Some other really nice smaller growing magnolias that I have grown are, Hassee, Alta, Greenback, and Kay Parris. Kay Parris is like a smaller version of Bracken’s Brown Beauty.

    October 3, 2015 at 10:34 am
  7. Steve Bender


    Without seeing the tree, it is hard to say for sure, but I don’t think the tree will be a problem.

    May 13, 2015 at 9:41 am
  8. Yuli morales

    A big magnolia tree is very close to my home is that dangerous? Worried the roots will hurt the foundation or pipes under my home. I love in Philadelphia, pa. The tree was planted on my front deck, it is about 20 -30 feet tall.

    April 29, 2015 at 8:39 pm
  9. shelley

    I had an Edith Bouge magnolia and it was magnificent. The tree is beautiful and the flowers were huge and fragrant. It did well in the cold Maryland winter but it grew fast and it got very large for the spot I put it in so sadly had to remove it. More land now so looking for one again

    April 13, 2015 at 8:14 pm
  10. Peter

    I have to disagree with Teddy Bear being a smaller version of Little Gem. It is more like a smaller version of D.D. Blanchard.

    March 19, 2015 at 8:10 pm
  11. mrsrowe1

    Steve Bender, I think you have a good point there!

    June 20, 2013 at 11:40 am
  12. Steve Bender

    Mrs. Rowe,

    I think you should consider a steel magnolia.

    June 17, 2013 at 12:17 pm
  13. mrsrowe1

    I have been fascinated with magnolias since I fist saw them as a young girl. When I purchased my current home on an acre, the first thing I did was plant them. I put in a nine foot tree to get a head start on flowers, but it struggled to live and died after two years. I planted four Little Gems, but only one survived and thrived-the others were destroyed by animals and hail. I put a Teddy Bear in and it lived eight years, but two years of severe drought and heat finally took it down in spite of my efforts to save it. I had a small magnolia I planted after my first big one died, and it died after two years. Then, it grew a new tree from the roots. It had gotten to about four feet tall and was looking good last month when a tornado took a huge limb off a nearby tree and dropped it right on top. The trunk is still there, only it has about six leaves left. It’s not that they won’t grow here; there are several old magnolias in the neighborhood, including one next door. In the ten years I have lived here, the weather has been insane going from flooding to droughts, to ice storms and severe weather. I guess I am not meant to be a magnolia owner. The Little Gem planted in the harshest environment of shade and tree roots is the only one still going strong. I need something indestructible.

    June 14, 2013 at 8:11 pm
  14. Carolyn Choi

    Nothing smells better than a Magnolia blossom in June, Grumpy, unless its a Mint Julep under the Magnolia tree 🙂

    June 14, 2013 at 4:22 pm

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