Our featured native for June is another familiar flowering small tree, the sweetbay, Magnolia virginiana. It is a common occupant of moist, acidic habitats along the Atlantic coastal plain from Long Island south to Lake Okeechobee and westward to east Texas. Its habit varies strongly based on climate; in the north it is a large—often multistemmed—shrub to 15-25 ft / 4½-8 m in height, while along the Gulf Coast it can mature to a tree 100 ft / 30 m in height. In Virginia, Magnolia virginiana remains a shrub or small tree.
Sweetbay features oblong leaves; glossy medium green above and silvery-white below. Locally, the tree is semi-evergreen, usually not dropping foliage until after Christmas. The creamy-white, waxy, solitary flowers emerge in mid-Spring and continue sporadically until frost. Each 2-3 in / 5-8 cm flower lasts two to three days, opening and closing diurnally and emitting a light, sweet, vanilla-like or lemony fragrance. The flowers are followed by small, upright, cone-like fruits bearing attractive bright-red seed follicles. The fruits seldom persist for long as they are attractive to several species of songbirds. Young twigs are a bright green, while the mature bark is a smooth light grey.
Magnolia virginiana is slender and graceful in form, much less coarse than southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) and many of the other M. stellata and M. ×soulangeana cultivars commonly used in landscapes. As such, it can occupy more niches in the garden, including as a specimen, in the shrub border, or as a backdrop to shorter plants. Although it prefers a moist, acidic soil, sweetbay is very tolerant once established, disliking only long periods of standing water. It also has the ability to thrive in low-oxygen, heavily clayed soils, which can be challenging to many other woody plants. As such, it is an excellent choice for wetlands establishment, streambank and pond-bank reclamation, and bioretention swales. It is remarkably pest free; the most common ailment is chlorosis (foliage yellowing) due to too high a soil pH. This can be corrected with acidic fertilizer or treatments of chelated iron or sulphur.
In short, sweetbay is a very attractive native magnolia which is much more versatile than many magnolia species and cultivars, especially in smaller landscapes and in areas where moisture is high.
White House Natives will have a good supply of Magnolia virginiana in sizes from 5-6 ft to 8-10 ft for the autumn season. It is a beautiful woody plant that is a real problem-solver in the landscape!