Magnolia virginiana – sweet bay magnolia

It was suggested that I should do some newsletters on favorite plants. Great idea! I love talking about plants and the sweet bay magnolia rates high on my list of favorites. Sweet bay grows wild in the swamps of Louisiana but is perfectly hardy here in Central Ohio which I find interesting. It is a native plant with glossy semi-evergreen leaves and very fragrant small white flowers in June. It is relatively upright in growth habit but quite loose and open, providing an accent without dense screening.

While it is best situated out of the wind for best winter foliage effect, it tolerates full sun and wind. Being a native to southern wetlands this magnolia is great for heavy wet soil and semi shade. I like to use it for small areas like courtyards for its strong scented summer flowers. But another great use is as an eye catcher near the front door or as a tall accent between windows.

The entire group of Magnolias are great ornamentals. They are quite variable, ranging from screening shrubs to mid-size specimen plants and even large shade trees! Most of them have large showy flowers which appear before the leaves, making a bold flowery statement. The sweet bay, however, is more notable in bloom for its sweet perfume scent. The old fashioned “saucer magnolia” is a beautiful small tree but, unfortunately, it gets damaged by frost in most years. We now have later blooming hybrids like “Jane” which avoid this problem but it is more bush-like and not the wide spreading beauty that we see in old gardens. Star magnolia is a shrub with narrow petalled white flowers which appear as early as March. This one is very hardy for late frosts. Another magnolia I’d like to mention here is a southern Ohio native which grows to a large shade tree. The cucumber magnolia or cucumber tree is a very interesting native tree which produces large, cream colored flowers in spring. Even more appealing are some newer hybrids called “Yellow Bird” and “Butterflies” which have bright yellow, even tropical looking flowers.

An article about magnolias wouldn’t be complete without mention of the “bull bay” or Southern magnolia. You’ll start seeing this medium size tree with large glossy foliage as you drive south through Kentucky. It is a classic in the south. But let that be a clue, it’s not real hardy north of the Mason Dixon line.

Magnolia virginiana or sweet bay magnolia