Sweetbay Magnolia

June 18th, 2020

Magnolia virginiana

This tree is indigenous to the eastern half of North America, especially along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Massachusetts to Texas.  It is a stately tree and would be a beautify addition to most suitable gardens as a specimen plant.

physical description

The sweetbay magnolia has shiny dark green leaves with a silver underside that appears frosted.  The 2"-3" creamy white flowers have a light lemon scent and are abundant in late spring and early summer.  Bright red seeded fruit ripens in late summer attracting many birds.  The foliage is evergreen meaning that it loses its leaves throughout the year.


This tree grows best in moist, acid soil with sun to partial shade. Grows 10'-20' high with a spread of 10’ to 20’ also.  This tree grows in Hardiness Zones 5 – 9.  The sweetbay magnolia is often classified as wetland plants, and even if you have some kind of yard sprinkling system, you won’t have any luck growing sweetbay magnolias in dry soils.

This tree can exhibit chlorosis or yellowing of the leaves, which may occur in high pH soils.



 It is very elegantly shaped and is a good choice for a specimen or patio tree.

interesting information

The tree benefits many types of wildlife by providing cover and nesting sites for them.  It is a larval host for the sweetbay silkmoth. 

Early American settlers called it “beaver tree” because the fleshy roots made good bait for beaver traps.

The flowers are pollinated by beetles, and open and close in a 2-day flowering cycle, alternating between a female and male pollination phase.  These separate phases prevent the flower from self-pollinating, however, separate flowers on the same plant may cross-pollinate.

The sweetbay magnolia provides benefits to many animal species including turkeys, mice, squirrels and other bird species.

The leaves were used as a spice in gravies and tea was made from the leaves and bark.  It was used by physicians in the 18th century to treat diarrhea, cough, and fever, used by the Rappahannock tribe in Virginia as a stimulant, and the Choctaw and Houma tribes used it to treat colds.  It was also used to treat rheumatism, gout, malaria, and was even inhaled as a mild hallucinogen.

About the Author

Charlie Belin is a retired professor and biological oceanographer. He taught five courses in the University of Georgia system for many years from his home base in Savannah, Georgia.

Charlie loves hiking at Reflection Riding, teaching children about the ecology of the area, and interacting with the Reflection Riding staff. They are GREAT!

Posted by Charlie Belin  | Category: native plants
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