Sweetbay is a woody, flowering, native tree that can grow up to 60 feet (grows only to 20-40 feet in the northern part of its range) on multiple gray and smooth stems. It may be deciduous, semi-evergreen, or evergreen; and will be deciduous in its furthest northern extent. It grows similar to a shrub, with a short, open habit. It can live over 50 years. It has slender, hairy twigs, and the gray or light brown bark has scales that are pressed together. The bark is aromatic when crushed. Sweetbay is similar in appearance to southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), but it has a smaller circumference and shorter height than the latter. The 4-6 in (10-15 cm) long, 1-3 in (3-8 cm) wide leaves are simple, alternate, oblong, toothless, slightly leathery, with a wedge-shaped base and bluntly point apex. Like southern magnolia, the leaves are lustrous above and pubescent below, however sweetbay is silvery below, while southern magnolia has a rusty red pubescence (tomentum). In late spring (May-June) it produces 2-3 in (5-8 cm) wide fragrant white, 9-12 spoon-shaped petaled, monoecious flowers (having male and female reproductive organs on same plant) on slender, smooth stalks. The flowers are pollinated by beetles, and open and close in a 2-day flowering cycle, alternating between a female and male pollination phase. The flowers are reported to produce a lemon scent and when the flowers close they generate heat that is beneficial to the beetles.
Timber/wood: Sweetbay does not have a significant value as a timber source, however like southern magnolia, it is used for furniture, cabinets, paneling, veneer, boxes, and crates (Hodges et al., 2010).
Ornamental/landscaping: Sweetbay is valued for its beauty, open form, attractive leaves, and its fragrant flowers (Hodges et al., 2010). It works well in a shrub border or as a single specimen and can be planted next to buildings or in situations with restricted space due to its horizontal crown (Gilman &Watson, 2014). It would be a good choice for rain gardens because it can tolerate saturated soils (Feather, 2013).
Wildlife: Magnolia seed ripens in mid-Autumn and is eaten and spread by songbirds, wild turkey, quail, and mammals such as gray squirrels and white-footed mice. Pollinators such as hummingbirds and beetles are attracted to high protein pollen. It is a host plant for tiger swallowtail butterfly, palamedes swallowtail, spicebush swallowtail, and sweetbay silkmoth. Deer and cattle often browse the leaves.
William Bartram (1739-1823) often wrote about sweetbay in the Southeast due to its natural beauty and importance to indigenous tribes (Austin, 2004). The leaves were used as a spice in gravies and tea was made from the leaves and/or bark (Fern, 2010). It was used by physicians in the 18th century to treat diarrhea, cough, and fever, used by the Rappahannock in Virginia as a stimulant, and the Choctaw and Houma used it to treat colds (Austin, 2004).
Distribution and Habitat
Magnolias once made up a large part of North Temperate forest trees before the last glacial period (Maisenhelder, 1970). Sweetbay grows along the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains from Massachusetts south to Florida, west to Texas, and north to Tennessee. Sweetbay extends farther north than southern magnolia and it is designated as a USDA facultative wetland plant which means it usually occurs in wetlands. It is considered a climax species in many forest communities.
Austin, D.F. (2004). Florida ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press
Feather (2013). Tree of the month-sweetbay magnolia: Magnolia virginiana. University Park, PA: College of Ag. Sci. Penn State Ext.
Fern, K. (2010). Magnolia virginiana. United Kingdom: Plants for a Future.
Gilman, E.F., & Watson, D.G. (2014). Magnolia virginiana: Sweetbay magnolia (PDF). Retrieved from http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/ST/ST38400.pdf
Hodges, J.D., D.L. Evans, L.W. Garnett, A. Londo, and L. McReynolds (2010). Mississippi trees (PDF). Retrieved from http://www.fwrc.msstate.edu/pubs/ms_trees.pdf
Maisenhelder, L.C. (1970). Magnolia: (magnolia grandiflora and magnolia virginiana). American Woods FS-245. USDA Forest Service.
Sheahan, C.M. 2015. Plant guide for sweet bay magnolia (magnolia virginiana). Retrieved from http://plants.usda.gov/java/factSheet
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