How to Pick the Right Magnolia Tree

Southern Magnolia Flower
Photo: Jared I. Lenz Photography/Getty Images

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.

A regular Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) gets big—about 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, 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.

emCones filled with bright red seeds replace the flowers in fall. Photo by Steve Bender./em.

Types of Magnolia Trees

'Edith Bogue'

If you think it's too cold where you live to grow Southern magnolia, pick up an 'Edith Bogue.' '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

'Bracken's Brown Beauty'

The 'Bracken's Brown Beauty' is my 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).

'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 three feet tall. The smaller ornamental evergreen is great for growing in large containers or for planting as a tall screen or hedge. To add on, the 'Little Gem' will bloom off and on throughout the summer and can stand colder winters up to USDA Zone 7.

'Teddy Bear'

The 'Teddy Bear' magnolia 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 my #1 choice for small gardens. Like the 'Little Gem,' the 'Teddy Bear' does well in large containers and is excellent for planting as a tall screen or hedge.

Southern Magnolia Care

Southern Magnolia
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All types of Magnolia grandiflora appreciate a lot of sunshine, and not a lot of shade. So make sure to plant yours in a spot where your evergreen will get all the sunbeams it surely loves.


Southern Magnolias grow best in soil that is slightly acidic to a neutral acidity level. The soil needs to be moist, but well-draining.


While these flowering ornamentals are drought tolerant after established, they do require some attention when it comes to water. After first planting your magnolia, be sure to give it a good deep soak. Then, during its first growing season, be sure to water it only to keep the soil surrounding it moist. Overwatering can lead to issues, so avoid keeping the area drenched. After your plant is established, only water when the tree looks like it could use a drink—wilting leaves, drooping branches, etc. are good signs of this.

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