As a cherished Southern icon, the Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) ranks up there with Harper Lee and mint juleps. Its 60- to 80-foot height, however, excludes the stately tree from small-space gardens.
For those in this situation, check out two smaller Southern magnolia cultivars, Little Gem (Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem') and Teddy Bear (Magnolia grandiflora 'Southern Charm'). Both have inherited their parent's leathery leaves and elegant blooms. Plant either for abundant, exceptionally fragrant flowers from spring to fall.
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Climate and Sun for Magnolias
Like the Southern magnolia species tree, Teddy Bear magnolia grows in U. S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone 7 through 9. Little Gem tolerates more heat, so it's suitable for USDA plant hardiness zones 7a through 10a.
Both cultivars do best with at least six hours of daily sun. Teddy Bear grows in partial shade, but has more compact growth and heavier blooms when planted in full sun. As evergreens that retain their leaves through winter, the cultivars need protection from prolonged exposure to subfreezing temperatures. Planting them near walls or structures with southwestern exposure and watering them well reduces the risk of damage.
Size and Form of Magnolia Cultivars
Picture a dense, glossy-leaved Christmas tree, and you have the Teddy Bear magnolia. A mature tree reaches 20 feet tall with a 12-foot spread at its base, gradually tapering to a point at its top. The tight growth pattern of its upright branches and its narrow, conical form work especially well in smaller gardens, screens, avenues, and specimens, as well as in large planters and containers.
Little Gem tops out at 20 feet with an oval or pyramidal form and an 8- to 10-foot spread. It is another dense, erect magnolia cultivar. You can use it as a shrub or hedge plant, or prune it as a tree.
Ornamental Leaves and Flowers
Little Gem and Teddy Bear both have leaves and flowers smaller than those of the Southern magnolia. Teddy Bear takes its name from the thick, reddish-brown down covering the backs of its oval, 4- to 8-inch green leaves. The undersides of Little Gem's 5- to 7-inch, elliptical leaves have a sparser, bronze-brown covering.
For the quickest flowers, choose Little Gem. It blooms in the second or third season after planting, with gray and white flowers measuring 4 inches across. Teddy Bear's 6- to 8-inch flowers appear in its third year. Both trees bloom from midspring to fall. Their woody, fuzzy seed cones open to reveal bright red seeds.