Thank Heaven for 'Little Girl' Magnolias

These later-flowering magnolias are just the right size for most gardens.

Jane Magnolia
Photo: Steve Bender

It's almost as certain as death and taxes. Unseasonably mild weather in late winter convinces your spring-flowering magnolia to open its blossoms too early. You get one day of glorious color before an arctic blast of cold air turns the flowers ugly brown overnight.

Oh, well, there's always next year, right? But what would you say if I told you that you could plant later-blooming magnolias that escape such carnage? What if I also told you these same plants bloom sporadically through summer too? And what if I said their small, tidy stature and no-prune nature make them ideal choices for the average garden? You'd say, "Please tell me more!"

Let Me Introduce You to the 'Girls'

Back in the 1950s, two breeders at the U.S. National Arboretum crossed lily magnolia (Magnolia liliflora) with star magnolia (M. stellata). They selected a series of superior hybrids that became known as the 'Little Girl' series, because each plant was given a girl's name. Most were named after daughters of the breeders. There are eight of them, but the ones you're most likely to encounter at the garden center are 'Ann,' 'Jane,' and 'Susan.' Their 4 to 6-inch flowers appear on leafless branches about two weeks later than those of star and saucer (Magnolia x soulangiana) magnolias.

To the untrained eye, they're pretty hard to tell apart. All have some variation of reddish-purple flowers. 'Ann' offers deep purple-pink blooms. Those of 'Jane' are reddish-purple outside and white inside. 'Susan' displays deeply colored blossoms of purplish-red. Another cultivar, 'Pinkie,' has flowers that fade to soft pink as they mature.

These magnolias can sporadically rebloom in the summer, when their thick foliage gives them an especially shrubby appearance. Some of the "girls" turn a golden yellow in fall, while others, like 'Betty,' have leaves that turn bronze. 'Betty' has flowers with as many as 18 petals that can reach 8 inches in size.

How to Grow 'Little Girl' Magnolias

These magnolias like full to part sun and loamy, moist soil, but will tolerate clay and dry areas. If you put them in a spot without full sun, light afternoon shade is best. Pests are few—no spraying required. They grow well in USDA Zones 3b to 8. Many garden centers and online nurseries carry them.

When deciding where to plant, give them space, but don't worry about these magnolias hijacking your yard. Almost every garden has room for one. They grow slowly into a dense, multitrunked tree generally around 12 to 15 feet tall and wide. 'Jane' is the tallest and most treelike variety, said to grow to 20 or 25 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Another cultivar, 'Judy,' is the smallest, reaching 7 to 9 feet tall and slightly wider. Most have a rounded, spreading form.

These magnolias are among the few trees you can feel comfortable planting close to the house. Grow one at the corner of your house, at the edge of your patio, or as a standout tree out on the lawn. They also make a great privacy screen at the edge of your property. Just be sure to add mulch around the base, keeping mulch a few inches away from the trunk.

One word of warning: Their multi-stemmed forms resemble that of crepe myrtle, leading some to commit "magnolia murder" by decapitating the end of each limb every winter or spring. This cuts off all the flower buds, wrecking your springtime flower show. There is seldom a wayward branch, so put away the loppers unless you find a dead or damaged branch to remove. If you need to reshape your magnolia, save it for when the tree has finished blooming.

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