The Plant Native

Sweetbay Magnolia

Highlights

Sweetbay Magnolias are gorgeous, glossy-leafed, mostly evergreen, native trees. Sweetbays are one of eight magnolias native to North America. Their sweet-smelling ivory flowers appear in the spring, followed by red berries in the summer. They thrive in a wide range of light, from part sun to sun.  Sweetbay Magnolias can be grown almost anywhere on the East Coast, from the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and down to the South. Scroll on for planting tips.

Sun – part-sun
20-90′ tall – depending on region
Evergreen in most climates
Magnolia virginiana
The glossy leaves and gorgeous creamy flowers of the Sweetbay

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native Sweetbay Magnolias

Table of Contents

In the realm of native plants, few can rival the iconic elegance of the Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). Native to a large swath of the United States, this magnificent tree looks amazing in yards and helps pollinators and songbirds. Sweetbay Magnolias are one of the eight magnolias native to North America (here’s a list of the other native magnolias.) In this article, we’ll explore the wonders of the Sweetbay Magnolia, including its history, how to grow, and how it changes throughout the four seasons. Let’s dig in, shall we?

The history of coveting the Sweetbay

This tree has had its fans for literally centuries. As mentioned in the opening, Sweetbay Magnolia was the first magnolia brought back to Europe for cultivation in the 17th century.

In the 19th century, it was still a plant fad. When Sweetbays were found in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, it started a plant obsession that left very few Sweetbays in the wild in Northern states. There are very few trends to pick up from the 17th century (we’ll keep our antibiotics and leech-free life, thank you), but planting Sweetbay Magnolias is definitely one of them.

Sweetbay Magnolia is a snack for beavers?

According to a 1925 guide to North American Wildflowers, beavers were “so fond of the bark that it was employed frequently to bait beaver traps.” This history is also why it also goes by the common name “beaver tree.”

Sweetbay Magnolia's range is huge! Map from the USDA

Sweetbay Magnolia’s native range

Sweetbay Magnolias are native to the entire Eastern seaboard from Massachusetts down to Florida, and west to Texas. They can look and behave a little differently, depending on which region they’re in. Read on to see how they change depending on if they’re in the north or south.

How tall is a Sweetbay Magnolia?

The height of Sweetbay Magnolias depends on where the tree is planted!

How to grow Sweetbay Magnolias

Sweetbay Magnolias like wetter areas. In nature, they are often found in or near swamps and bogs. If you’re planting in a non-wet area, be sure to give them water during dry periods, particularly during the first year when they are getting established.

Sweetbay Magnolias like full sun to part sun. The only thing they don’t like is full shade. The more sun they get, the more leaves and flowers they will be able to produce.

In most climates, Sweetbays are evergreen

Regardless of the region, Sweetbay Magnolias will keep their leaves year-round, unless there is a severely cold winter. During cold Northeast winters, the tree can drop its leaves to protect its energy. The leaves will come back in the spring.

Speaking of winter resiliency… where you get a Sweetbay Magnolia from will help its survival in the cold. Sweetbay Magnolias are from a wide swath of the eastern US, and within that range, there are Sweetbays that are regionally inclined. Sweetbays from the Northeast are tougher in cold winters than a Sweetbay from a more Southern state. This is another reason why it’s so important to buy from your local nurseries, particularly those nurseries that specialize in native plants.

The glossy, evergreen leaves of a Sweetbay Magnolia

Why plant a Sweetbay Magnolia?

There are many benefits to planting native Sweetbay Magnolias:

Sweetbay Magnolias help wildlife

Sweetbay Magnolias provide habitat for a range of wildlife, from birds to insects. Their piles of blooms also support pollinators like bees and butterflies, which depend on flowers for pollen and nectar.

Sweetbay Magnolias are beautiful

Sweetbay Magnolias are known for their stunning blooms, which also smell amazing. They are also evergreen, which means no matter the season or weather, they will always have leaves.

Planting native Sweetbay Magnolias saves time and money

Native Sweetbays are low-maintenance plants that require little watering or fertilization once established. They are also relatively pest and disease resistant. Compare this low-key level of care to how much time and money it takes for lawns and get some time (and money) back!

What to plant with Sweetbay Magnolias

Sweetbay Magnolias are perfectly paired with other native plants that like sun or part sun. Some favorites include:

mountain-laurel-native-shrub-flower

Mountain Laurel

ninebark-5755860_1280

Ninebark

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Oakleaf Hydrangea

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Pawpaw Tree

rosebay-rhododendron-native-shrub-flowering

Rhododendron

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Sweetshrub

In conclusion, Sweetbay Magnolias have been garden favorites for centuries and they deserve a place in our gardens today. No matter the season, Sweetbays are beautiful while providing food and shelter for pollinators and songbirds. Use the history, care, and tips here to plant one of these gorgeous trees and watch them return decades of beauty.

Want some inspiration on what native plants to pair with your new Sweetbay Magnolia? Here you go…

UPDATED —
03/05/2024
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