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Little Gem vs Alta Magnolia vs Southern Magnolia

Today we will be comparing three wonderful white-flowering magnolias. Little Gem and Alta Magnolia are varieties of Magnolia grandiflora. As for Southern Magnolia, it is another name for Magnolia grandiflora.

So this article will be a comparison of three related magnolias that have a lot in common but at the same time a lot of differences.

Magnolia Little Gem Alta Magnolia Southern Magnolia
USDA Hardiness zone 7-9 7-9 7-9
Mature height 15-25 ft (4.5-7.5 m) 15-18 ft (4.5-5.4 m) 60-80 ft (18-24 m)
Mature width 8-10 ft (2.4-3 m) 5-9 ft (1.5-2.7 m) 20-40 ft (6-12 m)
Growth rate medium medium fast
Flowers  size 8” across 10” across 12” across
Leaf size 5” long and 2” wide 7” long 10” long and 8” wide
Reblooming yes (late summer, fall, early winter) no no
Light exposure full sun, partial shade full sun full sun
Soil moist, drained moist, drained moist, drained
Soil pH 6.4-7.3 5.5-7.0 5.3-7.0
Watering one time per week in a drought one time per week in a drought  one time per week in a drought
Diseases fungus fungus fungus
Pests insects insects insects
Little Gem Magnolia vs Alta Magnolia

Little Gem Magnolia and Alta Magnolia

Flowers

The first thing that separates these three magnolias is the flowers and everything that goes with it.

Little Gem blooms usually in the second half of spring. The flowers are 8 inches across and are white with a slight grayish tint. There is a large yellow pistil in the center which makes a beautiful contrast to the white petals. The petals are narrow at the base and very wide in the middle, the tips are rounded.

Little Gem blooms again in late summer or early fall. The second time the flowers are slightly smaller than in the spring, but the fall-flowering period can last quite a long time. Little Gem has very fragrant flowers.

Alta is a late-blooming magnolia. Flowers appear in mid-summer (July) and can last until August. There is no re-blooming with this magnolia. But it has larger flowers than Little Gem, which can be up to 10 inches across. The flowers are white and very fragrant.

Southern magnolia has the largest flowers of all three magnolias. They can reach up to 12 inches in size. The color of the petals is also white, but they are larger than the previous two. The flowering period falls in late spring and early summer. Unfortunately, this magnolia does not bloom a second time. The flowers are highly scented.

Size and shape

Little Gem is a relatively small magnolia, usually less than 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. But sometimes if conditions are favorable this variety can reach 25 feet. The growth rate is medium, about 1 foot per year. From the size it follows that the shape of this magnolia is quite narrow, it can be called colony-shaped.

Alta magnolia is no more than 18 feet tall and up to 9 feet wide. That is, compared to Little Gem, it is a slightly more compact variety. It, too, has a narrow shape and about the same growth rate (1 foot per year). Because of these qualities, Alta magnolia is often chosen for hedges. Indeed, what could be more beautiful than a large-flowered hedge?

Southern Magnolia is the largest magnolia in our trio. It can easily exceed the 60-foot mark in height. Much taller specimens of this magnolia can also be found in the wild. Southern Magnolia’s width is also impressive, it can reach 40 feet across. The growth rate is fast, this plant can easily grow 2 feet per year.

From its size, it is a large tree with a broadly pyramidal crown. You need to consider its size before planting it in your yard.

Leaves

Little Gem leaves are 5 inches long and 2 inches wide. Their shape is narrow with a slightly pointed tip. The leaf color is deep green and the surface is glossy. The reverse side is brown and covered with thin fur. In fact, Little Gem leaves are very decorative and this magnolia looks beautiful even when it is not in bloom.

The Alta magnolia has leaf 6 inches long and 2 inches wide. Its leaves are narrower than Little Gem’s, making the foliage look more pointed. The surface is also shiny but the color is slightly lighter than the previous variety. There is brown fur on the underside of the leaf.

Southern magnolia has very large leaves. When mature, the leaf is 8 inches long and 5 inches wide. The color is dark green and the surface is very shiny. The opposite side has thin fur but the color is yellowish-brown, which is slightly different from the previous two. The leaves are very showy due to their size and broad shape.

Little Gem Magnolia vs Magnolia grandiflora

Little Gem Magnolia and Magnolia grandiflora

Hardiness

Little Gem is recommended for growing 7 to 9 USDA hardiness zones. This implies that it is a fairly hardy magnolia, but still, some US gardeners (zones 5-6) will not be able to grow it. There are also reports of this variety successfully growing in zone 10a. But if you want to grow it in that climate, you must realize that you do so at your own risk because there is no 100% verified data that it is possible.

As for Alta magnolia, it is also recommended from zone 7 to 9. But the forums are full of information that this variety grows well in zone 6, and there are no problems with it.

Although Southern Magnolia, like the two preceding ones, can also be grown in zones 7-9, it is considered the most frost-resistant of the three. Many specimens of this magnolia have been growing in zone 6 and even in zone 5a for many years now, and they do not freeze out from the frosts there.

Sunlight

Little Gem grows well in both penumbra and full sun. The only thing you should not do is plant it in total shade. This variety needs at least 6 hours of sunshine. The further south you go, the more time it can spend in the shade.

Alta magnolia and Southern magnolia need more sunlight. They are best planted in full sun. Otherwise, their crowns can be loose and the branches more brittle. Southern magnolia is a big tree so it is unlikely to be shaded, but as for Alta magnolia, it is better to plant it far from big trees and buildings that might shade it.

None of the three magnolias have problems with excessive sunlight. The surface of their leaves is shiny and reflects extra light. In addition, their leaves are leathery and as a result succulent enough to avoid scorching.

Watering

All three magnolias have roughly similar watering requirements. As soon as you plant a magnolia in your yard, you need to water it well. Then, in the first year, the magnolia should be watered once a week when it is not raining. The amount of water should be 1-2 gallons or more if the plant is large.

After the magnolia has taken root, there is very little need for watering. Only in extreme drought should you water the tree with enough water to wet the soil around the roots.

None of our varieties can be called drought-tolerant. This does not mean that they will not survive a short-term drought, but they should get enough water. Moreover, the more water a magnolia gets, the more vigorous it will be and the more flowers it will produce. But also don’t overwater magnolias, the soil around the tree should be moist but it shouldn’t be swampy.

Soil

The ground requirements are what the three magnolias have in common. It is believed that they can all tolerate different types of soil, as long as the soil is drained. Otherwise, root rot is possible.

But if you want your magnolia to grow well and bloom with lots of flowers you need to improve the soil. Before planting, add 1-2 buckets of pure compost to the planting hole and mix it with the native soil. If the soil is very sandy or clayey then add more compost (3-5 buckets).

Next, mulch the surface around the trunk with the same compost. This will prevent the soil from drying out quickly and make it more acidic. This is important because our magnolias prefer slightly acidic soil (5.6-6.6 pH).

Next, you need to add some slow-release fertilizer. Choose one with more phosphorus and potassium than nitrogen. This way you will get a lush bloom.

Roots

Little Gem and Alta magnolia have quite a strong root system. But because they are quite small plants, their roots are not invasive and it is possible to grow shade-loving plants under these trees. However, you should not plant these trees very close to the foundation of the house. The minimum distance from the trunk of the tree to the building should be 3 feet.

Southern Magnolia stands apart here. This is because of the large size of this tree. You have to plant it no closer than 20 feet from the house. Otherwise, the roots can damage the foundation. And generally, you have to understand that this magnolia is a very large tree that requires more care.

Problems

At the end of this article, I want to tell you about the common problems of these magnolias.

The first is a fungal disease that usually manifests itself as spots on the leaves or branches of the magnolia. There are many different diseases of magnolias, and it makes no sense to describe them here. The main thing to know is that the magnolia should grow in a place with good air circulation and plenty of light. At the first signs of disease, you need to spray the tree with fungicide.

The second problem is pests. As in the first case, several different insects feed on the leaves and young shoots of magnolias. If you see damaged leaves, spray the magnolia with garden oil, in most cases, this is enough. The only thing is to avoid spraying during flowering.