For years I’ve been a devotee of sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), an underused deciduous to evergreen small tree that can be found growing in the wild in bogs and swamps in the Carolinas. Sweetbay has attractive bicolored leaves that are bright green on top and silver-white on the bottom. They’re also pleasantly aromatic. I tell my students, sweetbay is one of those plants that you need to reach out and touch.
Sweetbay typically blooms from May to June and often into September bearing 3- to 5-inch wide, creamy-white lemon-scented blooms. Cucumber-like fruit develop shortly after the flowers fade. When these pods dry, they split open to reveal bright red oval seeds. To me, these beautiful gems offer ornamental interest; to wildlife, these high fat content seeds offer sustenance to migratory birds.
You’ll often find sweetbay as a multi-stemmed small tree, attaining a mature height of 30 to 50 ft. and spread of 20 to 25 ft. Best suited in full sun to partial shade, use sweetbay as a stand-alone, attention-grabbing specimen, in a border, or close to a patio or other outdoor space. Obviously, sweetbay is a perfect candidate for rain gardens or low-lying areas of your landscape (colloquially known as “hog wallows”).
Although sweetbay has been in the trade since the 17th century, it still wallows in obscurity. A few selections of sweetbay may increase its popularity. Consider ‘Jim Wilson’ Moonglow® for its cold tolerance and leaves with silvery-blue on the undersides, ‘Mattie Mae Smith’ with yellow-margined leaves, and ‘Santa Rosa’ (pictured) with large, lustrous dark green leaves.