Magnolia virginiana, Sweet Bay Magnolia

Magnolia virginiana, commonly called sweet bay magnolia is in the family Magnoliaceae. It is easily grown in acidic, medium to wet soil in full sun to part shade and prefers moist, rich organic soil, but, unlike most other magnolias, it tolerates wet boggy soils. It is susceptible to chlorosis in alkaline soils. Sweet bay magnolia does very well in heavy clay and needs winter protection in USDA Zone 5. It has aromatic spicy leaves and twigs and extremely fragrant flowers and a low flammability rating. The genus name honors Pierre Magnol, French botanist (1638-1715).

Sweet bay magnolia is native to southeastern U.S. and north along the Atlantic coast to New York. In the northern part of its growing range, it typically grows as a 20-foot tree with a spreading open-rounded crown or as a shorter, suckering, open, multi-stemmed shrub. In the deep south, it is more likely to be tree-like, sometimes reaching 100-feet tall. It has smooth bark, a narrow, rounded crown, and shallow roots.

The sweet bay magnolia is an excellent specimen tree for lawns. Though it is not as popular as southern magnolia due to its smaller flowers. It blooms sporadically over the tree during the summer months. It is deer-resistant and moderately salt tolerant.

Sweet bay magnolia provides winter coverage for song birds and small mammals. It is the larval host plant for Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilo troilus) which has two broods from April to October and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilo glaucus) which has three flights from February to November in the deep south and March to September in the north. The adult Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies feed on milkweed, joe pye weed, wild cherry, and lilac.

Sweet bay magnolia is at home in native gardens, children’s gardens, pollinator, and rain gardens. It can be used as a specimen or in a grouping with other native trees.

Sweet bay magnolia can be found in the Brunswick County Botanical Garden.

Information and photos by Jeanne Pavero