Sweetbay Magnolia

Sweetbay Magnolia

  • By Pat Chadwick
  • /
  • November 2015-Vol.1 No.11
  • /

by Pat Chadwick

With all the attention given to global warming these days, most gardeners seek out drought-tolerant plantings for their gardens and that’s a good thing. For the gardener who has wet or poor-draining soil, finding plants that don’t mind soggy feet may be a challenge. Sweetbay magnolia is one plant that comes to mind for such demanding growing conditions.


Sweetbay magnolia is a smaller, less majestic cousin of Magnolia grandiflora (Southern magnolia), that beloved aristocratic icon of the southern United States. One of 125 deciduous and evergreen members of the ancient Magnoliaceae genus, sweetbay magnolia was introduced into cultivation in the late 1600s and first appeared in European gardens in 1688.  Its common name, sweetbay, comes from the sweet-smelling bay-like foliage, while the term magnolia honors French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715). Other names for this plant include swamp magnolia and laurel magnolia.

Sweetbay magnolias are native to the southeastern United States where they are found growing in acidic, medium to wet soils, in full sun to part shade. Their range extends north along the Atlantic coast to New York. In the more northern (USDA Zone 5) part of their range, they tend to appear as open, multi-stemmed shrubs or as small 10- to 20-foot trees. In the deep southern part of their range (USDA Zone 9), they are more likely to maintain a tree-like habit and can grow to 60 feet or more. In Virginia, they are most commonly found growing wild in coastal plain areas and are less frequently found in the Piedmont. Although not native to Albemarle County, sweetbay magnolias have reportedly been found growing wild on a single mountain site in nearby Augusta County.  In this area, they typically grow 20 to 30 feet or more tall with a similar spread.


  • Habit: Sweetbay magnolias are columnar or vase-shaped. They typically grow as multi-stemmed specimens but can be found with single trunks.
  • Foliage: The glossy evergreen to semi-evergreen leaves measure three to five inches in length and are dark green on top with a silvery-looking underside. A breeze can make the tree shimmer as the silvery undersides are exposed to the sun. In this area of Virginia, the evergreen nature of its foliage depends upon the severity of our winter weather. While the tree may lose some of its foliage, it recovers nicely in spring.
  • Blossoms: The tree typically blooms in May through June and may occasionally send out random blossoms during the summer months. Because it blooms later in the spring, it is a good alternative to earlier blooming star and saucer magnolias, which are subject to damaging spring frosts. The creamy white flowers are similar to those of the Southern magnolia but much smaller, measuring approximately two to three inches in width. The blossoms are cup shaped and have 9 to 12 petals. Each blossom opens in the morning, closes at night, and lasts for two or three days. Although sweetbay magnolias will thrive in partial shade, they prefer a minimum of four hours of direct sun per day in order to produce their best flowers.
  • Fruit: The blossoms are followed in late summer by dark red aggregate fruits, appearing as cones measuring about two inches long. These cones eventually split open to expose flattened, glossy, bright orange-red seeds.
Sweetbay Magnolia Seedpods

Sweetbay Magnolia Seedpods

  • Bark: The bark is smooth and green on young branches and ages to a silvery gray, adding interest to the winter landscape.
  • Cultivars: In addition to the native species, a number of cultivars are available commercially ‘Henry Hicks’ and ‘Moonglow’ are reported to be more reliably evergreen than the species. Cultivar ‘Santa Rosa’ has larger leaves than the species.


Their preference for moist, rich, organic soils and their ability to tolerate wet, boggy conditions make sweetbay magnolias a good choice for planting near ponds, along streams, in swampy areas, or in low spots that collect water. Because they can tolerate periodic flooding, they thrive in rain gardens. Sweetbay magnolias make excellent specimen trees in the lawn, as part of a foundation planting, or at the edge of a woodland setting. The tree’s multi-stemmed shrubby form works well in a mixed shrub border.  Its smallish size also makes it a good candidate for planting near a patio where it can help filter light or provide a privacy screen. Used in groupings, these trees may help to define areas, such as playgrounds or parking lots, or to hide an unsightly view. Recognized as being resistant to wind damage, sweetbay magnolia is a good choice for use as a wind break.

Despite its preference for moist soil, sweetbay magnolia is drought tolerant once established.  Proof of this lies in the  accompanying photo of a thriving specimen growing in a dry site south of Charlottesville. With this past summer’s drought conditions during July and August, it weathered the lack of moisture well and exhibited only mild signs of stress.

Sweetbay Magnolia Specimen South of Charlottesville

Sweetbay Magnolia Specimen South of Charlottesville

In late summer and early fall, the clusters of red fruit attract squirrels, small rodents, turkey and quail. The fruit is also popular with songbirds such as blue jays, Northern flickers, towhees, and vireos. The blossoms attract a number of butterflies and moths, including the Eastern Tiger and Zebra Swallowtail butterflies.


  • Propagation Sweetbay magnolia may be easily rooted from softwood cuttings.
  • PlantingFor best results, plant the sweetbay magnolia in the spring in full or partial shade. It prefers evenly moist, acidic soil, but it will tolerate average garden soil provided the pH is 5.5 to 6.5. This tree grows at a medium to fast rate.
  • PruningPrune after the plant finishes blooming during the growing season. The plant wants to grow naturally with several trunks, but it can be trained to grow with a single trunk. It needs little pruning to develop a strong structure. Prune any diseased, broken, or dead branches all the way to their base. Thin out crowded branches to allow sunlight and air filtration to the inner limbs.


Sweetbay magnolias do not have any serious insect or disease problems. Leaf spots may occasionally appear on the foliage but treatment is not normally necessary. Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Publication 450-237 includes this plant among the problem-free trees that are recommended for Virginia landscapes.

This plant often appears on lists of plants that deer seldom browse. However, no plant is ever completely deer proof. So, if you have a deer problem, be aware that they may nibble sweet magnolia leaves and smaller twigs.


Sweetbay magnolia is a small, gracefully shaped tree that has a lot to offer throughout the year. This native ornamental bears attractive, lemon-scented flowers in spring and sporadically through the summer. Glossy green foliage persists on the tree nearly all year long. Showy red cone-like fruit provides color, interest, and food for wildlife in fall, and smooth gray bark adds beautiful color and contrast in winter.


American Horticulture Society, A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (2008)

Dirr, Michael, Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs (2011)

Mellichamp, Larry, Native Plants of the Southeast (2014)

VCE Pub. 430-026, Trees for Problem Landscape Sites — Wet and Dry Sites, http://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/430/430-026/430-026_pdf.pdf

VCE Pub. 450 -237, Problem-Free Trees for Virginia Landscapes, http://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/450/450-237/PPWS-47-pdf.pdf

Weakley, Alan S.; Ludwig, J. Christopher; and Townsend, John E., Flora of Virginia (2012)




  1. Kimberly Felong

    May I use the photos of the Sweetbay magnolia for our borough bulletin article on the same tree? I will reference your site. It will be published in our April 2017 edition.

  2. Valerie

    I just purchased two sweetbay magnolia plants. I am so delighted to have them. I love native plants, and I hope these two will be very happy on our property in the metro-Richmond area! Thanks for the good information. The main thing I have to decide is whether I want to let them grow naturally or train them to grow with a single trunk – I’ve never before trained a shrub to grow with a single trunk, so it will be a new adventure for me. Re: this, I have one question. If I do not deliberately train these plants to grow with a single trunk, do you think they would still grow to 20-30 feet tall in the metro-Richmond area? I am looking for that height of a privacy screen. The area where I plan to plant them has little morning sun, but about three -four hours of afternoon sun in the summer. Thank you!

    1. Cheryl

      Hi Valerie,
      I just recieved a magnolia as a gift. I was wandering if you decided to train yours to be a single trunk. Or let them be bushy. Mine has about 5 off then stem,I would like to train it for a single truck, but I have no idea how. Thanks you for a reply

      1. Valerie

        Hi Cheryl,

        I have not decided how I am going to grow my two sweetbay magnolias. I am new to this, so if I decide that they will each have a single trunk, I am going to have to learn how to do this! I hope you enjoy yours!!


  3. Anna

    It would be gorgeous to plant boulevards of sleeping areas with magnolias. Fortunately, due to the design features, most of our buildings diligently heat the street in winter, and heating mains help. However, no, to set aside the heating mains. They dig too often.

  4. Deborah Reilly

    I’ve read the Sweetbay Magnolia does well in narrow spaces and near buildings. How wide do the roots spread on these trees?
    I have an area between my house and our 6 ‘ privacy fence, that’s a low place in our yard where it takes a few days to drain during rainy seasons, we have a lot of clay in our soil. There’s also a two story house next door that I would like to block with a tree.

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