Drought is all over the news, but many gardeners have the opposite problem: a soggy low spot (or entire yard) that doesn’t drain well. Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is perfect for these boggy areas, and gorgeous to boot. This heat-loving native thrives in the woodlands of the eastern and southeastern United States. It’s popular in gardens because of its lemon-scented, bright white flowers, which appear in the spring and summer, and its shiny green leaves with silvery undersides. Aromatic leaves and twigs add to the charm. Birds like the bright red berries.
Common name: Sweet bay magnolia, silver bay, swamp magnolia
Botanical name: Magnolia virginiana
Plant type: Deciduous or evergreen large shrub or small tree
Zones: 6 to 9 (warmer parts of Zone 5 with protection)
Height: 10 to 60 feet tall, depending on site
• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Rich, humusy, acidic
• Moisture: Average to moist
• Mulch: Mulch to help keep soil moist.
• Pruning: Minimal pruning needed. Remove crossing or damaged branches.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• By seed or cuttings.
Pests and diseases
• Scale insects, weevils, and plant hoppers may attack Magnolia virginiana.
• May be vulnerable to canker, leaf spots, and powdery mildew.
• Your climate will determine the mature size and form of sweet bay magnolia. If you’re in the south, it can grow 40 feet tall or more. If you’re growing it in Zones 5 or 6, sweet bay may be a large shrub with multiple trunks, perfect for a specimen or screen, a foundation planting, or even for the back of a wide border.
• Take advantage of sweet bay’s tolerance for wet feet: Place it beside a pond or stream, or at the edge of a marsh.
• M. virginiana grows between 1 and 2 feet per year.
All in the family
• Many relatives of M. virginiana are favorites in the garden. Northern gardeners rely on star magnolia (M. stellata, Zones 4 to 9) for early spring blossoms. Southerners are familiar with the cultivars of bull bay (M. grandiflora, Zones 7 to 9).
• Other popular garden magnolias include saucer magnolia (M. x soulangeana) and M. x loebneri (both hardy in Zones 5 to 9)—both of these have produced beautiful cultivars.
• There are about 125 species in the Magnolia genus, and they’re found primarily in Asia and the Americas.
• The magnolia is one of the first flowers to have evolved. Scientists have found magnolia fossils millions of years old.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Magnolia virginiana courtesy of the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden.)