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Magnolia virginiana

Previously known as:

  • Magnolia virginiana var. australis
Phonetic Spelling
mag-NO-li-a ver-jin-ee-a-na
Description

The sweet bay magnolia is a graceful, slender, flowering, deciduous to semi-evergreen native shrub or tree. it typically grows 10 to 35 feet tall and equally as wide. As a tree, it has a spreading, open rounded crown, or it may be a shorter, suckering, open, multi-stemmed shrub. In the deep South, it is apt to be more tree-like, sometimes growing to 100 feet tall. The leaves are shiny, and dark green on the upper surface, and the undersides are pubescent and silvery. The flowers are solitary, and fragrant, measuring 2 to 3 inches in diameter, with creamy white blooms that have 9 to 12 petals. The flowers will open in the morning and close during the night for up to 2 to 3 days.  After flowering, cone-like fruits of aggregate follicles appear and contain bright red seeds.

Sweet bay magnolia is native to the coastal areas southeastern United States and north along the Atlantic coast to New York. They are often found in open woodlands, shaded woods, or swamps. This plant was introduced to Europe around the late 1600s and was known as the "Beaver Tree," because the fleshy roots of the tree were used by colonists as bait to catch beavers in traps.

The genus name, Magnolia, is in honor of a botanist from the 17th century, Pierre Magnol. The specific epithet, virginiana, means "of Virginia."

The sweet bay magnolia prefers full sun to partial shade and does best in consistently moist to wet, acidic, and organically rich soils. This species tolerates wet, swampy, and boggy soils; whereas, most other magnolias are intolerant. Winter damage can occur in zone 6 and the upper part of zone 5. There are cultivars available that are more cold-tolerant and even remain evergreen through the winter. This plant may be propagated by seeds or semi-hardwood cuttings.

Unfortunately, this plant is not as popular as the southern magnolia due to its smaller flowers. It is an excellent specimen tree for lawns or tall multi-stemmed shrubs for shrub borders. It will do well planted near ponds or streams. Dwarf plants occur with smaller growth forms and leaves and can be used in foundation plantings, near patios, or on the periphery of woodland areas. This plant is moderately salt tolerant. During the summer months, the tree blooms sporadically until the first frosts. 

Seasons of Interest:

Blooms: Late Spring to Early Summer       Foliage: Spring and Summer      Fruits:  Late Summer and Fall

Quick ID Hints:

  • 10 to 35-foot tall deciduous to evergreen multi-stemmed shrub or tree.
  • glossy, laurel-like, dark green leaves on the upper surface and silvery and pubescent beneath
  • creamy white, cup-like flowers measuring 2 to 3 inches in diameter with 9 to 12 petals
  • up to a 2-inch long cone-like aggregate of follicles that have bright red seeds

 Insects, Diseases, or Other Plant Problems:  This plant has no serious insect or disease issues, but it may be susceptible to chlorosis in alkaline soils. Scales may infest the leaves and stems, and weevils may chew on the leaves. Leaf spots can occur.

VIDEO created by Andy Pulte for “Landscape Plant Identification, Taxonomy, and Morphology” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Tennessee.

 

Profile Video:
See this plant in the following landscape:
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Emerald Tower'
    grows to 20 feet tall, glossy foliage, survives into zone 4
  • 'Henry Hicks'
    Grows 25 feet, remains evergreen into zone 5
  • 'Jim Wilson'
    Cold hardiness, slightly larger flowers
  • 'Keltyk'
    smaller leaves, compact
  • 'Moonglow'
  • 'Northern Belle'
    grows 20 to 25 feet tall, evergreen to zone 4
  • 'Santa Rosa'
    largest leaves, 25 feet tall, 20 feet wide, zones 6 to 9
  • ‘Tensaw’
    Dwarf and cold tolerant
'Emerald Tower', 'Henry Hicks', 'Jim Wilson', 'Keltyk', 'Moonglow', 'Northern Belle', 'Santa Rosa', ‘Tensaw’
Tags:
#fragrant#evergreen#water garden#rain garden#fragrant flowers#wildlife plant#native tree#fragrant leaves#salt tolerant#cover plant#flowering tree#seeds#small mammals#food source wildlife#cpp#fire low flammability#NC native#fragrant stems#deer resistant#ponds#children's garden#native garden#playground plant#edible fruits#pollinator plant#Braham Arboretum#fantz#larval host plant#food source fall#wet soils tolerant#patio planting#bird friendly#butterfly friendly#eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly#spicebush swallowtail butterfly#landscape plant sleuths course#boggy sites
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Emerald Tower'
    grows to 20 feet tall, glossy foliage, survives into zone 4
  • 'Henry Hicks'
    Grows 25 feet, remains evergreen into zone 5
  • 'Jim Wilson'
    Cold hardiness, slightly larger flowers
  • 'Keltyk'
    smaller leaves, compact
  • 'Moonglow'
  • 'Northern Belle'
    grows 20 to 25 feet tall, evergreen to zone 4
  • 'Santa Rosa'
    largest leaves, 25 feet tall, 20 feet wide, zones 6 to 9
  • ‘Tensaw’
    Dwarf and cold tolerant
'Emerald Tower', 'Henry Hicks', 'Jim Wilson', 'Keltyk', 'Moonglow', 'Northern Belle', 'Santa Rosa', ‘Tensaw’
Tags:
#fragrant#evergreen#water garden#rain garden#fragrant flowers#wildlife plant#native tree#fragrant leaves#salt tolerant#cover plant#flowering tree#seeds#small mammals#food source wildlife#cpp#fire low flammability#NC native#fragrant stems#deer resistant#ponds#children's garden#native garden#playground plant#edible fruits#pollinator plant#Braham Arboretum#fantz#larval host plant#food source fall#wet soils tolerant#patio planting#bird friendly#butterfly friendly#eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly#spicebush swallowtail butterfly#landscape plant sleuths course#boggy sites
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Magnolia
    Species:
    virginiana
    Family:
    Magnoliaceae
    Life Cycle:
    Woody
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    Eastern United States to Texas and Cuba
    Distribution:
    Native: Cuba and the United States--AL, AR, DC, DE, FL, GA, LA, MA, MD, MS, NC, NJ, NY, PA, SC, TN, TX, and VA
    Fire Risk Rating:
    low flammability
    Wildlife Value:
    Provides winter and extreme weather cover. This is a larval host plant for Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) which has two broods from April-October and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilo glaucus) which has three flights from February-November in the deep south and March-September in the north. The adult Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies feed on milkweed, joe pye weed, wild cherry, and lilac.) and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) glaucus) which has three flights from February-November in the deep south and March-September in the north. Foliage and twigs are eaten by white-tailed deer in winter. Seeds are eaten by birds and small mammals. It is a favorite tree of the sap suckers.
    Play Value:
    Attractive Flowers
    Fragrance
    Wildlife Food Source
    Wildlife Larval Host
    Particularly Resistant To (Insects/Diseases/Other Problems):
    Resistant to fire in landscape
    Dimensions:
    Height: 10 ft. 0 in. - 35 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 10 ft. 0 in. - 35 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Native Plant
    Shrub
    Tree
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Broadleaf Evergreen
    Semi-evergreen
    Habit/Form:
    Columnar
    Conical
    Multi-stemmed
    Open
    Pyramidal
    Rounded
    Spreading
    Vase
    Growth Rate:
    Rapid
    Maintenance:
    Low
    Texture:
    Medium
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
    Soil Texture:
    High Organic Matter
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Occasionally Wet
    Available Space To Plant:
    12-24 feet
    24-60 feet
    NC Region:
    Coastal
    Mountains
    Piedmont
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    5a, 5b, 6b, 6a, 7b, 7a, 8b, 8a, 9a, 9b, 10b, 10a
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Red/Burgundy
    Fruit Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Fall
    Fruit Type:
    Aggregate
    Follicle
    Fruit Length:
    1-3 inches
    Fruit Description:
    The fruits are up to 2 inches long cone-like aggregates of follicles that are large and have many segments. They have bright red seeds that mature in fall and can be showy. The seeds dangle from the fruits by a thread and are relished by birds.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Cream/Tan
    White
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Solitary
    Flower Value To Gardener:
    Fragrant
    Showy
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Spring
    Summer
    Flower Shape:
    Cup
    Flower Petals:
    7 - 20 petals/rays
    Flower Size:
    1-3 inches
    Flower Description:
    The bloom is fragrant, 2 to 3-inch cup-shaped, 9 to 12-petaled, creamy-white, and waxy flower. It blooms in mid-spring and sometimes continues to bloom sporadically until frost
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Broadleaf Evergreen
    Semi-evergreen
    Leaf Color:
    Gray/Silver
    Green
    Leaf Feel:
    Glossy
    Leathery
    Deciduous Leaf Fall Color:
    Insignificant
    Leaf Type:
    Simple
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Elliptical
    Lanceolate
    Oblong
    Leaf Margin:
    Entire
    Hairs Present:
    Yes
    Leaf Length:
    3-6 inches
    Leaf Width:
    1-3 inches
    Leaf Description:
    Leaves are alternate, laurel-like, elliptic to oblong-lanceolate, shiny, 3 to 5 inches long and 1-2 inches wide, dark green above and silvery glaucous underneath. Leaves are acute, broadly cuneate, and entire. They tend to cluster at the end of the branches. This plant may be semi-evergreen to evergreen in the southern United States, and it is deciduous in colder climates.
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Light Brown
    Light Gray
    Surface/Attachment:
    Smooth
    Bark Description:
    The bark is thin, smooth, and reddish-brown to gray, and may be mottled.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Green
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    Yes
    Stem Description:
    The stems are pale green and pubescent, and stipule scars encircle the twig. The new stems have green terminal buds.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Coastal
    Lawn
    Patio
    Pond
    Recreational Play Area
    Landscape Theme:
    Butterfly Garden
    Children's Garden
    Native Garden
    Pollinator Garden
    Rain Garden
    Shade Garden
    Design Feature:
    Border
    Flowering Tree
    Specimen
    Attracts:
    Butterflies
    Hummingbirds
    Pollinators
    Small Mammals
    Songbirds
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Deer
    Fire
    Pollution
    Salt
    Wet Soil