Sweetbay Magnolia Care: Tips For Growing Sweetbay Magnolias
By: Jackie Carroll
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.
Sweetbay Magnolia Information
Sweetbay magnolias can grow 50 feet (15 m.) tall or more in warm, southern climates, but in cool areas, it rarely exceeds 30 feet (9 m.). Its sweet fragrance and attractive shape make it an ideal specimen tree. The flowers have a sweet, lemony scent while the leaves and twigs have a spicy fragrance.
The tree benefits wildlife by providing cover and nesting sites. 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.
Sweetbay Magnolia Care
Plant sweetbay magnolia in narrow corridors or urban areas where you need a compact tree. 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 10a, although they may need protection during severe winters in zone 5. Surround the trees with a thick layer of organic mulch and irrigate as necessary to keep the soil from drying out.
The tree benefits from a balanced, general-purpose fertilizer for the first three years. Use one cup of fertilizer the first and second year, and two cups the third year. It doesn’t usually need fertilizer after the third year.
Maintain a slightly acid pH of between 5.5 and 6.5. In alkaline soil, the leaves turn yellow, a condition called chlorosis. Use sulfur to acidify the soil, if necessary.
Sweetbay magnolia trees are easily damaged by flying lawn debris. Always point the lawnmower debris away from the tree or use a debris shield. Allow a distance of a few inches with a string trimmer to prevent damage.
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Planting Guide for Sweetbay Magnolia
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) flowers in late spring and summer, with masses of lemon-scented, creamy-white 2- to 3-inch blooms that open against its glossy green foliage. Suitable for use in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 9, the tree tolerates coastal conditions, boggy soils and dense clay. Reaching 12 to 20 feet high with an equal spread, sweetbay magnolia works as a small shade tree or striking shrub border specimen where wind exposes its leaves' silvery undersides.
Sweetbay Magnolia, Silver Bay, Swamp Bay
|Genus:||Magnolia (mag-NO-lee-a) (Info)|
|Species:||virginiana (vir-jin-ee-AN-uh) (Info)|
|Synonym:||Magnolia virginiana var. australis|
|Synonym:||Magnolia virginiana var. parva|
Requires consistently moist soil do not let dry out between waterings
USDA Zone 6a: to -23.3 °C (-10 °F)
USDA Zone 6b: to -20.5 °C (-5 °F)
USDA Zone 7a: to -17.7 °C (0 °F)
USDA Zone 7b: to -14.9 °C (5 °F)
USDA Zone 8a: to -12.2 °C (10 °F)
USDA Zone 8b: to -9.4 °C (15 °F)
USDA Zone 9a: to -6.6 °C (20 °F)
USDA Zone 9b: to -3.8 °C (25 °F)
Where to Grow:
Grow outdoors year-round in hardiness zone
Soil pH requirements:
From semi-hardwood cuttings
From seed stratify if sowing indoors
Remove fleshy coating on seeds before storing
This plant is said to grow outdoors in the following regions:
Saraland, Alabama(2 reports)
New Orleans, Louisiana(2 reports)
Stennis Space Center, Mississippi
Raleigh, North Carolina(2 reports)
Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania
On Dec 1, 2019, Smilax from Milton, FL (Zone 8b) wrote:
Magnolia virginiana is a beautiful evergreen native that can be found growing in great abundance here along the the gulf coast. Keep in mind, it’s called “swamp magnolia” for a reason. This tree thrives in wet “mucky” soils, and tends to have a very shallow root system. As a result, it is usually the first tree to topple over in a storm. A hurricane can wipe out most of your trees. so don’t plant them around your house.
On Sep 3, 2018, zoneimpaired from Toronto, ON (Zone 6b) wrote:
I have this growing in Nova Scotia. The zone is reported to be 5b but it may be a warmer micro-climate. There has been no winterkill over the last 10 years but deer can be a problem. I love the fact that this magnolia blooms all of July. the evening fragrance is heavenly. I would recommend this to any who can grow this tree (shrub). it grows to about 2 metres by 2 metres.
On Mar 6, 2018, noseykate from SOUTH WEYMOUTH, MA wrote:
Has been growing fine in my coastal Massachusetts garden for 5 years now. Grows slowly. Wonderful sweet-smelling flowers through the summer, followed by bright red seed heads. Mine is in a sunny bog garden, nearly always moist, and with standing water at times in winter and early spring. It has required no care and has come through a severe winter with no damage. It is not evergreen here.
On Feb 25, 2017, PhillyLover from Philadelphia Suburbs, PA (Zone 7a) wrote:
Beautiful and fragrant, tough native tree. I have 4 different mostly-evergreen cultivars (Green Mike, Green Shadow, Ned's Northern Belle and Santa Rosa) and one deciduous straight species. They all have different leaf shapes and leaf color. They grow well for me in full sun and part shade, in heavy wet soil or drier soil. All of my trees are susceptible to magnolia leaf miner. While I don't like using pesticides, if I didn't treat each with a systemic by Mother's Day each spring, the leaves would be marred and they would drop many more leaves in the fall instead of being mostly evergreen.
On Mar 25, 2015, Sequoiadendron4 from Lititz, PA (Zone 6b) wrote:
A beautiful magnolia for shade. I planted mine mid summer of '12 in full shade and it's done wonderfully since. It grows about 12-18" a year so far. It is 'lanky' looking but I appreciate that and think it's one of the plant's charms. The leaves look beautiful when blown in the wind and show their silvery undersides. In my yard, it takes longer to emerge from dormancy than the average trees and shrubs. The flowers are probably the best smelling flowers in our yard. They only last for a few days each but are so fragrant it will knock your socks off. They begin their bloom in early to mid June here. Even if you don't see it flowering, you can smell them from yards away. They aren't super showy but it doesn't matter when they smell that great. The bloom last for several weeks since. read more all the flowers bloom randomly rather than at the same time. Occasionally, I get red seed heads late in the season that quickly disappear after ripening, most likely due to birds eating them. Fall leaf color isn't spectacular but does show hints of yellow. This plant requires no care whatsoever and is quite a great item to have, especially for full shade.
On Dec 29, 2014, PhilsBulbGarden from Valley Village, CA wrote:
The variety australis actually has two forms: a southerly-growing form that is usually multi-trunked, smaller, and somewhat tender and a northerly-growing form that is single-trunked, tall, and hardy at least through zone 7. This latter form is occasionally found native in far northern Mississippi, Alabama, and nearly to Nashville. This is the especially great form to find--if indeed you can-- and grow it as a specimen tree. At my family home in north Mississippi (zone 7) we grow seven of these, and they and their delicious, lemon-scented flowers are wonderful to behold. The trunks and limbs are resistant to ice storms and wind, and the papery evergreen leaves are easily mowed away whenever they drop. (The two trees of the very southerly growing form that is relatively tender were so. read more unimpressive and decrepit that we took both of them out several years ago!) Unfortunately, it is the southerly form that is commonly offered by growers the stately northerly form is practically impossible to find. Note that most virginiana's sold are the deciduous form, while the stately australis form I have described herein is evergreen! I am now trying to grow three in-ground seedlings here in the Los Angeles area only time will tell if they can be kept happily moist in this hot and dry area.
On Apr 28, 2014, dawsontm from Fairmont, IL wrote:
I'm supposed to be 5A but as many people know, we have just come through one of the worst winters in history.
Well, last year I planted a Sweetbay Magnolia from a local nursery called 'The Possibility Place' and after this winter I thought there wasn't much chance of it surviving because I had had a negative experience with a Bracken's Black Beauty a few years ago during a cold winter (not nearly as bad as the most recent winter) that killed it after a few years, but I'm glad to say I'm already seeing shoots coming from the Sweetbay this spring. Of course, all its leaves from last year turned brown and most dropped off this winter, as would be expected in a harsh winter climate like this.
If it can survive a harsh winter like this in t. read more he upper Midwest, I figure it should have a good possibility of growing well longer term.
On Jan 10, 2014, Rickwebb from Downingtown, PA wrote:
It is a handsome tree that is smaller farther north and bigger farther south. I first saw it in northeast ILL where it gets more like 15 to 20 ft high and is deciduous. My small tree that I bought at a native plant nursery as a small size grew very fast about 2-2.5 ft/yr in se PA. It is evergreen in winter, but drops its leaves in late March, April, and early May and some at all other times. Other trees are deciduous in winter in this area every year while some vary, depending on how cold the winter gets. My tree wants to be 30 to 35 ft high. Its handsome, big, white flowers are very fragrant, but are solitary and are produced only in a small number, but for a long time of June, July, and August. The birds, as Catbirds, eat some of the big red seeds.
On Sep 16, 2012, CypressCynthia from Slidell, LA wrote:
I love the form of this little tree: the slender white trunk, usually in multiples (think crepe myrtle without the mess). The flowers are insignificant, but aromatic. It is a sculptural tree that looks professional in landscaping if done correctly. My husband calls it the "aspen of the South" because of its shimmery silver appearance in the sun. Terrific native that is host to swallowtail butterflies.
On Oct 1, 2010, braun06 from Irving, TX (Zone 8a) wrote:
On May 21, 2010, willows_1 from Amherst, OH wrote:
I just had my landscaper install one of these beautiful trees as a focal point in front of my newly constructed home. I waited for it to bloom and when it did I was dissapointed. The flowers will bloom in the morning and the fragrance is heavenly. and by the time evening arrives they are turning brown. Nothing I have read prepared me for this, as I had thought they would last at least a few days. Maybe there is something wrong with this tree. The species I have is the Magnolia virginiana. Any information on this would be greatly appreciated.
On May 9, 2009, dghornock from bear (glasgow), DE (Zone 7b) wrote:
On Mar 29, 2009, CARPE_DIEM from Chicago, IL wrote:
A great magnolia that is sadly underused in the midwestern U.S. Fully hardy in Chicago, it has no problems with diseases that plague saucer magnolias here. It does benefit from acidic amendments to alkaline soil, as well as from spraying the foliage with a solution of kelp and organic fertilizer a few times the first half of the growing season. As has been mentioned, likes lots of water. Can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub pruning just after the main blooming period will keep next year's blooms at eye (and nose!) level. Leaves stay green well into autumn here. They will eventually turn brown but linger on the branches throughout winter. They can be removed by hand on a small-to-medium shrub, taking care not to disturb next spring's buds. For a large specimen in a prominent settin. read more g, the brown leaves all winter could be an aesthetic or maintenace concern to some people.
On Aug 17, 2008, leeflea51 from Golden, MS (Zone 7a) wrote:
I have 2 of these and do so enjoy each Spring/early Summer when they bloom. The blooms are a light cream color, about 2" in size, with a citrus fragrance. They are short lived, lasting about 2-3 days. They can be precocius bloomers. Mine are only about 5' with a spread of about 4'. They are growing in semi-shade. I do not give supplemental watering, as I've never seen the need.
On Jun 23, 2008, BambooChic from Prattville, AL wrote:
This tree grows with abandon in my wetland woods. It is lends a tropical look to any garden with it's smooth bark, big shiny leaves that are evergreen except for the spring leaf drop which is quickly replenished with new leaves. The roots are like Maples as they tend to travel all over the top of the ground so may not be for subdivision living. They need to do this in wetlands so it may not be necessary in a normal tilth. They love a lot of water and do there best in your wettest spot. Not for xeriscaping landscapes.
On Jun 26, 2006, CaptMicha from Brookeville, MD (Zone 7a) wrote:
This is one of my favorites because of it's delicate beauty and fragrance.
The leaves have a soft green color and pale ashy wood. It makes pure white fragrant flowers and then redberries burst from an orange seedcomb.
We have this planted right near the most fequently used front entrance to our home, where it's lightly shaded by the house and the porch. Everytime I walk by, I catch a waft of the spicy, sweet perfume, even when it's not in bloom so I'm assuming that the leaves can also give off this fragrance, although it's magnified while in flower.
It's attractive in every season, even when almost bare in winter. It's a mass producer of berries, which I've discovered the mockingbirds are very fond of. I've hoped to find some sweetbays pop up a. read more round the yard because of this but it's not at all invasive, maybe just a seedling or two at the base of the plant.
Sweetbay seems to be insect and desease resistant, although I know that some lepidoptera species may use this as a host plant.
On Dec 4, 2005, escambiaguy from Atmore, AL (Zone 8b) wrote:
I have alot of these trees in the woods behind my house. They are mostly evergreen here in zone8b. They make a nice screen planted along a property line. I have seen them growing in full sun but most of mine are growing in light shade under tall pines. I very seldom see them flower though.
On Oct 16, 2004, QueenB from Shepherd, TX (Zone 8b) wrote:
I found this growing as a native on my property. The silver backs and brighter green of the leaves make it a nice addition as an understory tree among oaks and pines. Here it's semi-evergreen, losing it's leaves in the late winter/early spring. This species doesn't seem to produce as much of a mess as Magnolia grandiflora.
On Oct 9, 2004, MotherNature4 from Bartow, FL (Zone 9a) wrote:
In Florida, these trees often grow in an old pond which has filled in. The trees in the center grow taller, reaching for the sun, giving the area of trees a rounded shape known as a bay "head." It is often difficult to see the flowers, but the leaf backs are covered with white hairs. When the wind blows, they flip up and are very attractive. Some people call them "silver or white bay."
On Oct 9, 2004, xyris from Sebring, FL (Zone 9b) wrote:
Sweetbay Magnolia is a beautiful native tree, mostly found in swamps and seepage slopes in its natural habitats. Unfortunately, it is one of the trees that suffered the most in the hurricanes of 2004 in Florida. It seemed to be snapped off and have large limbs broken off much more frequently than any other native tree species.
On Oct 8, 2004, tcfromky from Mercer, PA (Zone 5a) wrote:
Sweetbay magnolia is a deciduous or evergreen tree to 30m tall, native to the southeastern United States. Whether it is deciduous or evergreen depends on climate it is evergreen in areas with milder winters in the south of its range, and deciduous further north.
The seeds are black but covered by a thinly fleshy red coat, which is attractive to some fruit-eating birds
Grown for its large, conspicuous, and scented flowers.
On Jan 25, 2002, Terry from Murfreesboro, TN (Zone 7a) wrote:
This tall lanky member of the Magnolia family is often overlooked for its showier cousins. It is deciduous in the colder zones semi-evergreen in warmer climates. It occurs naturally in bogs and swamps, and requires constantly moist soil.
Used sparingly, it can provide an interesting backdrop to other plants.
The 2"-3" creamy white flowers have a light lemon scent and are visible in late spring and early summer. It is very elegantly shaped and is a good choice for a specimen or patio tree.?
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Sweetbay magnolia is an excellent native tree
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
(11/17/17) Fall — November through early December — is the best time to plant hardy trees in Louisiana. Are you thinking about adding shade trees, small spring- or summer-flowering trees or trees for screening? If you are, this is time of the year to head out to local nurseries and purchase trees to plant in your landscape.
If you want a medium-sized evergreen tree, the evergreen sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana var. australis) is an excellent native tree that is not nearly as well-known as it should be. Because of its outstanding characteristics, the evergreen sweetbay magnolia was chosen to be a Louisiana Super Plants selection by the LSU AgCenter.
The Louisiana Super Plants program is an LSU AgCenter educational and marketing campaign that highlights tough and beautiful plants that perform well in Louisiana landscapes. Louisiana Super Plants are “university tested and industry approved.”
The Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is well known as a traditional tree for Louisiana landscapes. Like camellias, azaleas and crape myrtles, it is often considered essential for creating a “Southern” style garden. Unlike camellias, azaleas and crape myrtles, however, which are all native to the Far East, the Southern magnolia is native to Louisiana. But we have other native Magnolia species that are also worthy of planting.
The evergreen sweetbay magnolia reliably retains its foliage during winter. This naturally occurring variety is distinct from the standard species, Magnolia virginiana, for this reason. The standard species is deciduous to semi-deciduous and drops most or all of its leaves during winter. The evergreen form grows in the most southern parts of this species’ natural range in the eastern U.S. In the Latin name, the variety name australis means southern.
And speaking of the leaves, the foliage of the sweet bay magnolia is especially beautiful. Smaller and lighter green that the Southern magnolia and without the glossy shine, there is a surprise when you look closely. The foliage of the sweetbay is bright silver-white on the reverse. When the wind catches the canopy of these trees and flips up the leaves, the ripples of silver are a delight to the eye.
The flowers also make this tree popular. They are creamy white and about 2-3 inches in diameter. Flowers generally appear in greatest abundance beginning in late April, peaking in May and diminishing in early June. But flowering may continue sporadically through the summer. They are not as large and showy as the flowers of Southern magnolias, but they have the same rich, lemony fragrance that many Louisiana gardeners know and love so well.
The sweetbay magnolia is a medium-size tree that grows to be around 30 to 50 feet tall with a spread of 20 to 30 feet. The tree tends to be fairly narrow and columnar through much of its life, although the shape can vary. Given its potential size, make sure you do not plant them too close to buildings.
This attractive tree can be grown either multi-trunked or single-trunked. When growing a multi-trunk specimen, limit the number of trunks to three or five. Younger sweetbay magnolias may send up vigorous shoots from the lower trunk. Once you have established the desired number of trunks — one, three or five — keep these shoots pruned off.
Sweetbay magnolias are best planted while the weather is cool and the plants are dormant. Fall planting is particularly good because it allows the tree to grow roots and get established over the winter.
Magnolia roots are very sensitive to the depth of plantings, so it is critical that the top of the root ball be at or slightly above the surrounding soil. If planted too deeply or in a location not to their liking, magnolia trees tend to grow poorly and stay stunted. A happy young tree, on the other hand, will grow moderately fast, especially if fertilized in spring each year.
Be aware that even though they are evergreen, sweetbay magnolias drop some old leaves in fall and may drop a few more as they come into bloom. They also drop old petals when they are in bloom and seed cones in late summer and fall. But I would not consider these trees as messy as the popular Southern magnolia.
Planting trees properly can make the difference between success and failure.
When preparing the hole, dig the hole at least twice the diameter of the root ball and no deeper than the height of the root ball. When placed into the hole, the root ball should sit on solid, undisturbed soil.
Remove the tree from its container and place the tree gently in the hole. The top of the root ball should be level with or slightly above the surrounding soil. It is critical that you do not plant the tree too deep.
Thoroughly pulverize the soil dug out from the hole and use this soil — without any additions — to backfill around the tree. Add soil around the tree until the hole is about half full, then firm the soil to eliminate air pockets but do not pack it tight. Finish filling the hole, firm again and then water the tree thoroughly to settle it in. Generally, do not fertilize a newly planted tree.
Sweetbay magnolia flowers are creamy white and about 2-3 inches in diameter. Photo by Dan Gill/LSU AgCenter
Mature sweetbay magnolia trees will average about 30 feet tall with a spread of 20 feet, but larger sizes are not uncommon. LSU AgCenter file photo by Allen Owings
The sweetbay magnolia produces bright red seeds that mature in autumn on cone-like pods. Photo by Dan Gill/LSU AgCenter
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