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Sweetbay magnolia is a small, gracefully shaped shrub or tree that grows quickly and keeps on giving throughout the year. The native ornamental has a loose, open form and leathery, glossy foliage that remains on the tree into late fall or winter in northern climes (A Field Guide to Texas Trees by Benny Simpson uses the quirky term “tardily deciduous”). Lemon-scented flowers bloom and attract hummingbirds and other pollinators in late May, after damaging spring frosts have done their worst. The solitary, creamy-white flowers open in the morning and close at night for several days, continuing to bloom sporadically until the first frost. Four or more hours of sun are required for optimal flowering. Bright red, cone-like fruits provide color, interest, and food for song birds and small mammals in the fall, while smooth, silvery-gray bark adds beautiful color and contrast to winter landscapes.


Unlike many magnolias, sweetbay (aka swamp magnolia) is perfect for heavy, wet, or poorly drained, acidic soils, and it’s also tolerant of drought once established. This native of the southeastern US  is often found in moist woodlands and along streams and swamps, yet it tolerates well-drained sites. In the north, it grows 10 to 20 feet tall as a multi-stemmed shrub or, less typically, as a tree. Shrubs are usually shorter with a columnar- or vase-shaped form, while trees tend to have spreading, open crowns. This versatile magnolia has a variety of uses, from rain gardens to woodland edges to sites under utility lines. The multi-stemmed shrub is resistant to wind damage and works well as a windbreak in a mixed-shrub border. It’s an excellent choice for a specimen tree or shrub, especially when placed where its fragrance can be appreciated. Several sweetbay magnolias grouped around a patio can create a “semi-transparent enclosure,” according to The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Douglas Tallamy.  The plant has no serious insect or disease issues, but it may be susceptible to chlorosis in alkaline soils. It should only be pruned after flowering to avoid removing any of the current season's flowers.


The genus name honors 17th-century botanist Pierre Magnol, and virginiana means “of Virginia.” The common name reflects the sweet-smelling foliage that looks like bay leaves. The oblong leaves have a lustrous, dark green surface and a silky-white underside that shimmers as the leaves flutter in the breeze. In the late 1600’s, sweetbay magnolia was introduced to Europe; it was called “beaver tree," because the fleshy roots of the tree were used by colonists as bait to catch beavers in traps.


Native habitats include open woodlands, shaded woods, and swamps. Use as a specimen tree for lawns or as tall shrubs for borders. Excels near ponds or streams. Situate near patios or front doors for the fragrance. Use as an accent between windows.


Plant Characteristics:

Grows 10-20’ tall and wide. Grows 35-90 feet in the Deep South.


Prefers full or part sun.


Prefers acidic, rich, medium to wet soils and tolerates well-drained soils, wet sites, and occasional flooding. Good for heavy, wet soils. Drought tolerant once established.


Waxy, cup-like flowers are 2-3” wide with 9-12 petals. In September, egg-shaped fruits up to 2” long are composed of aggregates of follicles that hold many bright red seeds that emit a tropical fragrance when crushed. Each fruit eventually splits open, and birds feast upon flattened, glossy seeds that dangle from the fruit by threads.


Alternate, elliptical leaves are 3-5” long with smooth margins and a leathery texture. Leaves tend to cluster at the ends of the branches and to be deciduous in colder climates.


Single or multi-stemmed trunk has thin, smooth, green bark that matures to a silvery gray. Bark may be mottled.


Wildlife Value:

Host plant for 21 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including eastern tiger swallowtail. Hummingbirds and beetles are attracted to the high-protein pollen. Beetles benefit from the warm enclosure when the blossoms close their petals at night. Seeds are eaten by squirrels, small rodents, turkeys, and quail. The fruit is also relished by song birds such as sapsuckers, blue jays, northern flickers, towhees, and vireos.  Foliage and twigs may be eaten by deer in winter.


Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Sweetbay magnolia was valued for its beauty and medicinal and edible uses by indigenous tribes, according to Florida Ethnobotany by D.F. Austin. Various tribes used the plant as a stimulant or to treat colds.


Eighteenth-century physicians used it to treat diarrhea, cough, and fever.


The leaves were used as a spice in gravies, and a tea was made from the leaves and/or bark.


The wood has been used to make furniture, cabinets, paneling, veneer, boxes, and crates.

Magnolia, Sweetbay, Magnolia virginiana

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  • For summer planting, water deeply 1-2 times weekly 


    For fall planting, water every 1-2 weeks; water more often during prolonged hot, dry spells

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