The Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is a graceful southern, evergreen to semi-evergreen. A wide columnar tree, it can grow into a medium-size tree in southern climates. In the north, this tree is shorter and it sheds its large, simple, alternatively-placed leaves in winter while in the south it retains its leaves year-round. This tree is especially enjoyed when its large white petal flowers bloom in early summer and have an alluring, lemony scent; therefore its common name “Sweetbay.” The fruit is an upright red, cone-like cluster of berries. The tree is often multi-stemmed with smooth gray bark. It grows well in wet soil and can tolerate shade. It is a native of the eastern part of North America as well as the Gulf Coast, and is the only magnolia native to New Jersey. Although it is planted widely for its fragrant flowers, the Sweetbay magnolia does not blossom as abundantly as other magnolias. Early American colonists called this tree “Beaver Tree” as the fleshy roots were used to bait beaver (in traps). This was the first of the American magnolias to arrive in Britain (1688).
Common name: Sweet Bay Magnolia, Sweet bay, Swamp Magnolia
Scientific Name (fmily and order): Magnolia virginiana L. (Magnoliaceae, Magnoliales)
Species Origin: Eastern United States
New Jersey Status: USDA Native
Habit: 10 -60’; bole diameter 9 – 30”. Small to medium-sized tree or large shrub with deciduous or evergren leaves (depending on zone).
Habitat: Zones 5 – 9; coastal swamps; border ot sreams and ponds.
Trunk/Stem: One to several trunks. In North shrubby looking tree. Narrow rounded crown of erect to spreading branches and slender branchlets. Bark light brown to gray, smooth to scaly.
Leaves: Deciduous or Evergreen (depending on zone), Simple, Alternate. 4 – 6”long. Ellipitic to broadly elliptic or oovate with bluntly-pointed tip, margins entire. Leave thick, glossy, bright green above; silvery gray with downy hairs beneath. Leaf and twig has spicy scent when crushed.
Flowers: Perfect. Luxuriously aromatic – lemony scent. Flowers 2 – 3 ½” wide, showy, creamy white; cup-shape with 9 – 15 spatulate tepals rounded at the tips. Green pistils and many yellow stamens. Blooms late spring early summer.
Fruits and seeds: 1 ½”-2” long cone-like cluster of follicles. Ovoid; green at first turning pinkish red to reddish brown at maurity. Follicles have a pointed projection at the tip.
Characteristics: Although it is planted widely for its fragrant flowers, the Sweetbay does not blossom as abundantly as other magnolias. In the South leaves persist throughout the winter. As all parts of the tree are aromatic, it derives its common name. This was the first of the American magnolias to arrive in Britain (1688). Early American colonists called this tree “Beaver Tree” as the fleshy roots were used to to bait beaver (in traps).