Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)

Sweetbay Magnolia, Merely Sweetbay

All magnolias have unusual, exotic-looking cones, but those on a sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) are showier than most. Sweetbay magnolia trees feature creamy white spring and summer flowers with a sweet, lemony fragrance and leaves that flutter in the slightest breeze to flash their silvery undersides. The fruiting cones consist of a group of pinkish colored fruit that burst open to release the seeds when ripe. These outstanding ornamental trees create less mess than other magnolia tree species.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Magnolia virginiana, most commonly known as sweetbay magnolia, or merely sweetbay (also laurel magnolia, swamp bay, swamp magnolia, white bay, or beaver tree), is a member of the magnolia family, Magnoliaceae. It was the first magnolia to be scientifically described under modern rules of botanical nomenclature, and is the type species of the genus Magnolia; as Magnolia is also the type genus of all flowering plants (magnoliophytes), this species in a sense typifies all flowering plants.

Magnolia virginiana was one of the many species described by Carl Linnaeus.

Magnolia virginiana is an evergreen or deciduous tree to 30 m (100 ft) tall, native to the lowlands and swamps of the Atlantic coastal plain of the eastern United States, from Florida to Long Island, New York. Whether it is deciduous or evergreen depends on climate; it is evergreen in areas with milder winters in the south of its range (zone 7 southward), and is semi-evergreen or deciduous further north. The leaves are alternate, simple (not lobed or pinnate), with entire margins, 6–12 cm long, and 3–5 cm wide. The bark is smooth and gray, with the inner bark mildly scented, the scent reminiscent of the bay laurel spice.

The flowers, which appear in late spring or early summer, are creamy white, 8–14 cm diameter, with 6-15 petal-like tepals. The flowers carry a very strong vanilla scent that can sometimes be noticed several hundred yards away. The fruit is a fused aggregate of follicles, 3–5 cm long, pinkish-red when mature (in early fall), with the follicles splitting open to release the 1 cm long seeds. The seeds are black but covered by a thinly fleshy red coat, which is attractive to some fruit-eating birds; these swallow the seeds, digest the red coating, and disperse the seeds in their droppings.

They need full sun or part shade in medium-moist to wet soil. These trees are often classified as wetland plants and even with irrigation, you won’t have any luck growing sweetbay magnolias in dry soils. The trees survive winters in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 through 10a, although they may need protection during severe winters in zone 5.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

The positioning of your sweetbay magnolia is also an important consideration. Despite being able to cope with cooler climates, they will prefer a sunny spot in the garden with some partial shade for protection during the summer months.

Temperature

To avoid damaging early flowering buds, keep sweetbay magnolia in its preferred moderate to warm temperatures. Most varieties can withstand weather conditions in hardiness zones 4-9. Sweetbay magnolia should only need watering as younger, newly planted trees, or during periods of drought. You can also help your tree retain moisture with a layer of mulch around its base.

Watering

Sweetbay magnolia should only need watering as younger, newly planted trees, or during periods of drought. If sweetbay magnolia is planted in the garden, it should be watered immediately after planting, and again when the water has seeped through, and repeated 4-5 times. Water it a second time 3 days after planting and a third time 5 days after planting.

After that, watering can be sparingly done, and established plants can absorb moisture from the soil. Pay close attention to checking if they survive. In the hot seasons, a little water can be used in the morning and evening, while in other seasons it is not necessary.

Soil

Sweetbay magnolia prefers acidic soils, which is important to consider if you are gardening in alkaline soil such as clay or chalk. Add a layer of peat when planting your sweetbay magnolia to help raise acidity levels. In areas where soil remains wet, particularly during the winter months, this is no reason to worry: sweetbay magnolia can happily cope with compact, rich soil.

Fertilizing

Organic fertilizer should be applied to the base of the plant in spring. At this time of year, your sweetbay magnolia will just be starting to develop leaves and will want extra nitrogen to help with their production. This gives plants the energy to bloom a little later in the season. Therefore, a nitrogen-rich fertilizer such as dried-blood meal is recommended.

Later in the year, and particularly if your region has had heavy rain over the growing season, sweetbay magnolia benefits from a lighter feed of fertilizer to help return vital nutrients into the ground. A fertilizer with potassium, such as potash, is suitable at this time of year and can be applied during fall before the tree becomes dormant over the winter.

Planting Instructions

The best time to plant young sweetbay magnolia is during the spring. plants should be kept well-watered, and benefit from the addition of organic matter or pre-mixed fertilizer to promote strong, healthy growth. This should be mixed in with the soil around the roots of new plants. Be sure to choose a location with plenty of room for your plant to grow.

Pruning

Sweetbay magnolia requires little pruning. In fact, pruning can harm the trees or prevent flowering if pruned back too hard. Therefore, a light trim of younger trees during late spring/summer after they have finished blooming is all that is recommended to help shape your plant and to encourage more blooms in the coming years. Remove any damaged branches and ones that are crossing over. You can also trim back any extra-long, leggy shoots. Consider the tree shape when pruning your sweetbay magnolia, and always aim for a balanced, open structure.

Propagation

Although people typically plant sweetbay magnolia as a young or established tree, it is also possible to sow them from seed. However, it is hard to buy seeds. If you already have a tree, keep an eye out for the exotic-looking fruits and collect the seed pods during early fall when they are still fresh.

Remove the seeds from the red Magnolia berries and follow these steps to ensure germination:

  • Soak the seeds overnight, remove the following day, and rub the outer coating of the seeds off using a coarse cloth.
  • Chill the seeds in a refrigerator for up to three months in a pot of moist sand.

Seeds will then be ready for planting into pots or directly into the ground. Keep them out of direct sunlight and ensure they are well-watered until seedlings emerge. Sweetbay magnolia can take between 10-15 years to flower for the first time, so growing from seeds is by no means a short term project.

Propagation of sweetbay magnolia can also be achieved by layering. If you have a deciduous tree, softwood cuttings can be taken during spring/summer. If you have an evergreen tree, it is possible to take cuttings of semi-ripe wood later in the growing year during fall.

Transplanting

The perfect time to transplant sweetbay magnolia is between mid-spring and early summer when the plant is thriving. Choose a well-draining location with partial shade. Be gentle with roots and provide ample space for growth, ensuring a smooth transplant for this beautiful perennial.

Pests and Diseases

No wonder they’re so popular for creating magnolia hybrids. Everyone wants a bit of that sweet, sweet resistance to pests and diseases.

A mature tree is at no risk from browsing, but deer will make a meal out of leaves and young twigs now and then, and young trees could be slightly deformed.

Over time, the shape can be recovered through pruning, but you might want to put a small fence around young trees if you live in an area with lots of deer activity.

Scale might also be a problem, but it’s rare and these pests usually only infest trees that have been damaged or otherwise weakened. 

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Ornamental uses

Magnolia virginiana is often grown as an ornamental tree in gardens, and used in horticultural applications to give an architectural feel to landscape designs. It is an attractive tree for parks and large gardens, grown for its large, conspicuous, scented flowers, for its clean, attractive foliage, and for its fast growth. In warmer areas Magnolia virginiana is valued for its evergreen foliage.

It grows well with bayberries, yaupon, dogwoods, chokecherry, sumac, snowbell, viburnum, ferns, pitcher plants, and sedges. Use it in a mixed shrub border or as a specimen.

You can also plant it near porches and patios because it won’t become overwhelming in size, and it will provide dappled shade.

Some magnolia species are prone to breakage, but this one is fairly resistant to wind damage.

  • Medicinal uses

Magnolia virginiana is used in traditional Chinese medicine for its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.

Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) Details

Common name Sweetbay Magnolia, Merely Sweetbay
Botanical name Magnolia virginiana
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Fall
Height 10 ft. 0 in. - 35 ft. 0 in.
Width 10 ft. 0 in. - 35 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition High Organic Matter
Flower color Cream/Tan
Leaf color Gray/Silver