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Specimen Magnolias-A Few of Our Favorite Varieties

November 18, 2014 Dave Marciniak 0 Comments

When you think of magnolias, what first comes to mind? The cloud of white dinner plate-sized flowers, shiny evergreen leaves, and hundred foot plus heights of the iconic Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)? Or the pink tinged blossoms on the bare early spring branches of the Japanese Saucer variety (Magnolia x soulangeana)? Do you contemplate the massive three-foot long leaves of the Big Leaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) or the drooping arches of the Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala)? Or does the elongated green fruit of the aptly named Cucumber Tree (Magnolia acuminata) tickle your fancy?

Saucer MagnoliaPhoto by Jean and Oliver CC BY ND 2.0

Although these may be some of the better-known and iconic members of the magnolia family Magnoliaceae, named after French botanist Pierre Magnol (who helped invent the modern classification of plants via family), there are actually more than two hundred varieties of Magnolia available today. Furthermore, not everyone has the room to decorate their landscape with the oversized giant beauties mentioned above. For the smaller and more economical homeowner’s yard, there are a variety of more diminutive (although by no means small) specimens that can make a great impact in your landscape. Some cultivars of note are Magnolia ‘Jane’, Southern ‘Little Gem’, Teddy Bear Magnolia, and the Star Magnolia.

Magnolia ‘Jane’ (Magnolia x ‘Jane’), a smaller hybrid cultivar of M. liliflora ‘Reflorescens’ and M. stellata ‘Waterlily’, is one eight varieties fondly referred to as the “Little Girls” that were developed in the 1950s. Fondly nick-named for their reduced stature and offspring status, these Magnolia selections bloom two to four weeks later than M. stellata and M. x soulangeana greatly reducing the possibility of late spring frost damage.

The cultivar Magnolia ‘Jane’ is a medium-sized hardy shrub or small tree that grows best in zones 4-7, reaches a height of about 10-15 feet with a spread of 8-12 feet, flourishes best in full sun to partial shade, and is most well-known for its showy deep reddish-purple and white flowers that bloom in late spring. Deep auburn exteriors with snow-white centers, the blooms are an attractive tulip-like shape with a lightly scented aroma, while the foliage is dark green and leathery. In addition to its obvious appeal as a focal point or specimen tree, the slight stature of Magnolia ‘Jane’ makes it a great option for growing under power lines or in tight locations with limited space. When pruned, it can also grow into a shrub-like habit suitable for foundation and border plantings.

Magnolia Jane1Photo by Tess Hammock CC BY NC 2.0

Southern ‘Little Gem’ (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’) is a true dwarf variety of the aforementioned Southern Magnolia reaching heights of only 20-25 feet with a spread of 10-15 feet. Growing slowly over many years, it has an upright and narrow growth habit with the appearance of a multi-stemmed shrub. Characterized by the same pure white flowers as its larger cousin (though in a more diminutive fashion only 4-5 inches in diameter), the ‘Little Gem’ blooms late spring to midsummer amongst a background of shiny, dark, oval-shaped evergreen foliage with rust colored, fuzzy undersides in zones 7-10. This magnolia variety is not particularly cold hardy and should only be grown in protected locations near the outskirts of its range in full sun to partial shade.

 Little Gem MagnoliaLittle Gem Magnolia 2

Photo by littlegemtrees CC BY ND 2.0Photo by Dennis Yang CC BY 2.0

Teddy Bear Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Southern Charm’), another cultivar of the ubiquitous Southern Magnolia, is highly similar to the ‘Little Gem’ in overall appearance. The Teddy Bear, however, has a slightly larger leaf width, a more compact and narrower canopy, stronger and more upright lateral branches, produces fewer flowers in midsummer to early fall, and grows somewhat slower than the ‘Little Gem.’ The largest difference between the two however, can be identified by its common name. The fuzzy undersides of the Teddy Bear’s leaves are thicker and more fur-like in appearance than the ‘Little Gem.’ In addition, the Teddy Bear Magnolia grows best in zones 7-9 (a more limited range) like the species plant.


Photo by Garden Supply Co.

Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is a small, deciduous tree (15-20’ tall with a slightly smaller spread) native to Japan, and is characterized by its rounded, compact and spreading crown, late winter to early spring bloom period, and many petaled star-like flowers. Comprised of 12-18 individual petals per 5-inch bloom, the snow-white flowers often tinged with pink near their core, resemble nothing more than mini stars. The Star Magnolia grows best in zones 4-9, is very slow growing, prefers full sun to partial shade, is subject to possible frost damage due to its early bloom period when planted in unprotected areas, begins blooming at a very tender age (1-2’ specimens have been seen to bloom), and attains a yellow then bronze autumn color before losing its leaves in the fall.

Star MagnoliaPhoto by 1blessedmom CC BY NC ND 2.0

From fuzzy fur-like leaves to striking deep reddish-purple or starry blooms, this group of pint-sized magnolia varieties would be a great addition to any landscape. For more information on how to incorporate these beauties into your own landscape plans, call 703-679-8550 to set up a consultation today.

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