Sweetbay blossoms are smaller, more delicate versions of those of their showier cousin, the southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).
A faded beauty...
A ripe sweetbay magnolia "cone" has release all but one of its shiny red seeds.
Sweetbay usually grows in an upright, conical form, but may become more spreading when it finds itself in the open, not as crowded, and released from the shade of competing trees. This is typically a small tree, usually maxing out at about 30 ft (9 m) in height, although they can get much bigger, and the National Champion, growing in Leon County, Florida, is 91 ft (27.3 m) tall. The bark is a pleasant looking smooth gray. The younger stems and leaf petioles are covered with a silky white fur that eventually turns to brown and ultimately sloughs off. The leaves are evergreen in the South, but deciduous in cooler locations. Young leaves are clothed in a dense silky-wooly pubescence on the underside which becomes matted and dirty-whitish with age. The leaves are glossy, dark green above, and when bruised, smell a little like the leaves of bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) and red bay (Persea borbonia). Sweetbay leaves are smaller than those of the southern magnolia (M. grandiflora), usually about 2.5-6 in (6-15 cm) long and 1-2.5 in (2-6 cm) wide. The cup shaped flowers are very much like those of the southern magnolia: creamy white and lemony fragrant, but a little smaller, about 1.5-3 in(4-7 cm) across. The fruiting “cone” is an aggregate of pinkish fruits which split open at maturity to release red-coated black seeds.
There are several named selections in the trade. Some have a bushy, compact habit; some are columnar; some have smaller and some have larger leaves than the wild species. 'Large Flowered Strain' from Louisiana Nurseries reportedly has flowers to 6 in (15 cm) across.
Sweetbay magnolias thrive in the moist bottomlands along North Florida rivers and streams where they become a forest giants growing to 60 ft or more in height.
Planted in a sunny, open location, this sweetbay tree has formed a broad rounded crown with branches that sweep the ground where the beautiful blossoms and fragrance can be enjoyed.
Location Magnolia virginiana occurs in swamps, creek bottoms, bayheads, wet savannas and wet flatwoods in the southeastern U.S., mainly on the Coastal Plain from Delaware to East Texas.
Sweetbay needs an acidic soil. Light: Sweetbay grows well in full sun to partial shade. Moisture: Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and the US Army Corps of Engineers are charged with delineating regulated wetlands that come under their respective jurisdictions, and one of the ways they do this is by noting the occurrence of wetland plant species. Florida DEP classifies sweetbay as an obligate wetland species, defined as a species which occurs "almost always under natural conditions in wetlands", and the USACE classifies sweetbay as a facultative wetland species, defined as a species that "usually occurs in wetlands (estimated probability 67%-99%), but occasionally found in non-wetlands."
Nevertheless, once established, sweetbay survives nicely in upland soils. Hardiness: USDA Zones 6-9. Sweetbay has been grown in zone 5, but sometimes suffers winter damage. Propagation: Sweetbay is easy to start from fresh seed, and germination occurs rapidly. It also can be started from young, fast growing tip cuttings taken in spring and kept under mist. When transplanting to upland soils, be sure to water frequently for the first six months.
The slightest breeze will stir the sweetbay leaves, exposing their silvery white undersides.
Sweetbay is best suited for moist, wetland soils, but can be grown in drier sites as well. It is perhaps the most wetland loving of all the magnolias. This is an elegant, small magnolia that makes a very attractive specimen in a mixed or native plant landscape. The sweetly fragrant white flowers and bright red cones are especially attractive against the dark green and silvery leaves.
Fruit eating birds swallow the seeds, digest only the fleshy red coating, and then disperse the seeds in their droppings.
Even a light breeze sets the leaves of sweetbay to fluttering and flashing their silvery undersides, making this one of the easiest wetland trees to identify at distance.