Magnolia virginiana, sweetbay magnolia, is not widely planted in gardens nor often available commercially. This is a shame because it is a beautiful native tree. Flowers are like mini-versions of Magnolia grandiflora, only 3″-4″ across. The smaller leaf structure allows sweetbay magnolia to fit into the garden more gracefully than bigleaf magnolia.
Collected in 1678 by naturalist and clergyman John Banister, Magnolia virginiana has the distinction of being the first magnolia scientifically described.
It was also the first magnolia grown outside of the United States. The more grandiose Magnolia grandiflora soon overshadowed it in English gardens.
Magnolia virginiana is most commonly called sweetbay magnolia, or sweetbay. Perhaps my favorite common name is beaver tree. As one might imagine with a name like beaver tree, Magnolia virginiana likes soils that are wetter than average.
Sweetbay Magnolia tolerates heavy clay soils better than many other tree species.
It is native to the swampier places of the eastern United States. Magnolia virginiana does best in soils that are medium to wet. Once established, sweetbay magnolia does fine in average garden soil. No supplemental watering is required. It is an excellent choice for those who wish to grow magnolias in boggy places.
Sweetbay magnolia grows fairly upright and is a good choice for confined spaces.
It is hardy zones 5-9. It is borderline in zone 5. While Magnolia virginiana is semi-evergreen in its southern reaches, it is deciduous farther north. My experience with Magnolia virginiana is as a tall, upright tree. The Missouri Botanical Garden reports it often grows as a shorter multi-stemmed shrub in gardens up north.
Flowers are small (3″-4″ across) when compared to southern magnolia, but very beautiful. The largest flush is in early summer with the occasional bloom throughout the rest of the season. Foliage is medium-green and waxy. The bark is a lovely and understated smooth grey. The aromatic inner bark is reminiscent of bay leaves (Laurus nobilis).
Soil that is dark, rich, moist, and acidic is strongly preferred. Sweetbay magnolia is not overly tolerant of alkaline soils.
Height: to 40′-60′ feet tall and fairly narrow. Strongly upright growth habit.
Native status: Native
Winter hardiness: 5-9* – Borderline hardiness in zone 5.
Of note: Under-used native magnolia with beautiful bark and foliage. Can tolerate boggy soils. Sweetbay magnolia is a good choice for wetter areas of the garden. Beautiful flowers arrive in early summer. Prefers acidic soils.