Magnolia honors the French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715); virginiana means “of Virginia.”
Sweetbay magnolia is named for the sweet-smelling bay-like leaves. Other names include swamp or laurel magnolia.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN AND NATIVE HABITAT
Sweetbay magnolia’s native range is Massachusetts to Florida, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. Trees grow in moist woodlands, along streams and swamps. The small tree is semi-evergreen to deciduous in northern latitudes, evergreen in the deep South.
Not native to Kentucky.
Growth Habit and Form
The growth habit of sweetbay magnolia varies from a single-stemmed tree to a multi-stemmed, round-headed shrub. Trees grow 10 to 20 feet in height in the northern part of its range; 60 feet or more in the southern part of its range.
The leaves are alternate, simple, and elliptic to oblong-lanceolate in shape. The 3 to 5 inch-long leaves are lustrous dark green above and glaucous (silvery) on their undersides. The leaves are semi-evergreen to deciduous in northern latitudes, evergreen in the deep South.
Flowers are solitary, creamy white and lemon-scented and have 9 to 12 petals. Flowers are 2 to 3 inches across and cup-shaped. Flowers bloom between May and June. The flowers are the smallest of the native North American magnolias. Flowers are pollinated by insects.
Fruit is a dark red, 2 inch-long cone-like cluster of seeds. Fruit ripens in August. The seeds are scattered by wildlife.
The bark is smooth and green on young trees but turns silvery gray on older trees.
Wild and Cultivated Varieties
Some twenty cultivars are recognized by authorities.
‘Henry Hicks’ has handsome evergreen foliage.
‘Santa Rosa’ is a large, lustrous, dark green evergreen leaf form from Woodlanders.
’Satellite’ was introduced by the U.S. National Arboretum. It has dark green, evergreen leaves that are blue-green below. It offers cream white, 3 inch-wide fragrant flowers.
Variety australis was first described in 1919 by Professor Charles Sprague Sargent from plants growing in North and South Carolina, Florida and Texas. This variety is more tree-like, evergreen and the branches and petioles are more pubescent than the species. There is some debate as to whether var. australis is a true variety.
Sweetbay magnolia is an attractive ornamental with fragrant flowers. It makes an excellent patio or specimen tree.
Hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 9.
Medium to fast.
Cultivation and Propagation Information
Trees grow well in wet and even swampy soils in sun to partial shade. Sweetbay magnolia requires acid soils. Propagate by seed and softwood cuttings from 2- to 3-year old plants.
Diseases and Insects
The leaves and twigs are eaten by deer and cattle. The seeds are a choice food of gray squirrels.
Minimal attention given appropriate cultural conditions.
TRADITIONAL AND MODERN USES
Native Americans and European settlers used a concoction from the bark to treat fevers and rheumatism.
The fruit was used to treat coughs and chest ailments.
The wood is occasionally used for veneer and furniture.
Sweetbay magnolia is an important ornamental. It was introduced into cultivation in the 1680s.
Sweetbay magnolia was the first magnolia introduced into Great Britain.