Magnolia virginiana (Sweetbay)
Life can be stressful sometimes – thank goodness for magnolias! When things get overwhelming, get yourself to your closest blooming magnolia and deeply inhale the soothing, rich deep, exotic fragrance. For extreme cases, bring along a chair and plan to stay next to your tree and your blossom for as long as it takes for your blood pressure to lower, your body to relax and your thoughts to clear – the fragrance of the magnolia flower is the best therapy ever and smells a little like honeysuckle and vanilla with a swirl of wisteria, gardenia and the sweetest rose.
The flowers are wonderfully large, typically four to six inches across and each smooth velvet petal measures two to three inches wide. The flowers are nyctinastic as they close at night and open wide again in the morning with each flower lasting two or three days.
In Virginia and the mid-Atlantic, we have a lovely native magnolia called the Sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) which has enchanting small blossoms which pack as much flower-power perfume as the larger umbrella leaf magnolia (Magnolia tripetela) or cucumber-tree magnolia (Magnolia acuminata). It grows naturally along the coastal plain but can also thrive in the Piedmont and Blue Ridge provinces.
The ornamental sweetbay highlights its long-blooming flowers (typically May-July) with attractive dark green foliage surrounding the creamy white blossoms which are borne on top of the leaf structure. The leaves are alternate and untoothed with horizontal branches creating a generally balanced appearance. In the south, they are generally deciduous but can be evergreen in the most southern climates or in protected areas.
The current Virginia champion lives in the City of Chesapeake and is 58’ tall with a crown of 55’. The national champion is thriving in Hillsboro, Florida at 61’ tall with a crown spread of 60’.
They are a great choice for wetter areas as they have high moisture needs and can grow in part shade or full sun. They work well in the landscape in locations where size is a factor as they typically reach a maximum height of 20 feet and can also be grown as a large shrub, though in ideal situations, they can grow up to 50 feet. Thriving in the south, Magnolia virginiana is hardy to zones 6-9.
After flowering, the magnolia forms a very interesting seed pod, a favorite for Christmas decorations and winter arrangements.
The magnolia is a host to the gorgeous eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) butterfly and the sweetbay silk moth (Callosamia securifera). It has many known medicinal properties, particularly the bark, and is an ancient Chinese and Native American curative.
Stressed out Asians in need of some natural aromatherapy are fortunate to have the majority of magnolias growing from the Himalayas through Japan and China. The Magnoliaceae family contains 12 genera and about 200 species including another of our favorite southern trees, the tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera).
So for an inexpensive way to chill out and get everything in perspective, plant a magnolia and get your chair or blanket or hammock ready to breathe in its sweet fragrance.