Sweetbay Magnolia Trees: Caring for Magnolia Virginiana

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The Sweetbay magnolia tree is a breathtaking view, as its bi-colored leaves gracefully sway in the breeze while releasing a delightful fragrance of lemon and vanilla from its delicate, creamy-white flowers.

Like a lot of magnolia trees, they also have the potential to be quite large, so just how big are we talking?

How big do Sweetbay magnolia trees get? Sweetbay magnolia trees can reach 60 feet tall and 20 feet wide when grown in the extreme southern range of recommended USDA Grow Zones. Generally, most Sweetbay cultivars will grow to a mature size of 10-35 feet tall and wide, but conditions and specific varieties will affect their ultimate size.

Sweetbay magnolia can also be trimmed and trained to a shrub-like size and will take on a naturally shorter form if you happen to grow in the colder regions of the US.

However you plan to enjoy this gorgeous magnolia in your landscape, we’ve got all the information you need from planting to propagating, sun and soil needs, purchasing one, and loads more!

The world of magnolia trees is vast, and there are many, many fantastic varieties to select from, so don’t limit yourself. See the best-blooming top picks in my guide, Magnolia Types and Varieties – explore it today!

Sweetbay Magnolia Tree

Nicknamed “beaver tree” and “Swamp magnolia,” The Sweetbay magnolia was introduced to Europe in the late 1600s and its fleshy root system was once used as bait by colonists attempting to trap beavers!

Today Sweetbay magnolia trees can be found around coastal regions of the southeastern US and are loved for their delicate blooms and interesting foliage. Let’s take a more detailed look at this stunning variety.

Botanical nameMagnolia virginiana
Other namesSwamp magnolia, white laurel, swamp sassafras
Mature height10-35 ft.
Mature width10-35 ft.
Growth rateMedium-fast
Light preferences4-8 hours daily direct sun
Ideal soilLoamy/sandy, well-draining, rich in organic matter (5.5-6.5 pH)
Watering needsDeep watering twice weekly in first year, once weekly after during scarce rainfall
FertilizationMulch or slow-release acid-loving plant food once in spring
Bloom timeMay to June
Bloom color & fragranceCreamy-white with lemony vanilla scent

Swamp Magnolia General Appearance

This is a tall and slender tree with a vase-like habit and multiple upright trunks with spreading horizontal branches.

It has small creamy-white flowers and dark green foliage and produces dark-red raspberry-like fruits

Is Sweetbay Magnolia a Tree or a Shrub?

Sweetbay magnolias can be considered both a large multi-stemmed shrub and a small tree.

Depending on the size of your garden and preference, you can prune and train Sweetbay into a shrub form for hedges or keep it as a single focal specimen.

Seasonal Beauty

Around late spring, dainty cream-colored flowers emerge in striking contrast to the dark green leaves, and as the blooms fade in early summer, Sweetbay magnolia sends out pinkish-red raspberry-esque fruits containing bright red seeds.

As the fruit eventually drops, the multi-toned leaves of dark green with silver undersides can be appreciated. The silvery-gray color almost makes them shimmer in the bare winter landscape!

While most leaves retain their dark green color, some individuals change to a tan-brown in the fall.

The bark even has a beautiful quality to it, morphing from green and smooth to a mottled silvery gray as Sweetbay ages, and the tree’s multi-stemmed structure resemble spreading fingers on a hand.

Growth Rate & Mature Size

Sweetbay magnolia grows at a medium to fast rate with height increases of anywhere to 2 feet of growth or more each year in good conditions.

Trees usually grow to a mature height of 10-35 feet with a similar spread.

White Blooms

From May through to June, this beautiful tree sends out small cup-shaped blossoms with velvety creamy white petals and a delicate, fragrant, lemony or vanilla scent.

Each solitary flower blooms for about 2-3 days before dropping, but a random flush of blooms is possible later in the summer too!

The blooms of the similar Southern magnolia are slightly larger than those of the Swamp magnolia, but they do smell amazing despite their smaller size!

Leaves

The elliptical 3-6 inch-long leaves cluster at the tip of the branches and have glossy dark green above and silvery or gray undersides, lending an almost frosted appearance.

The foliage also has a spicy, aromatic quality when crushed.

A small seed pod growing on a Sweetbay magnolia tree.

Are Sweet Bay Magnolias Evergreen?

Sweetbay magnolias are considered semi-evergreen, meaning they will lose some of their leaves for a short period during fall.

Generally, they are semi to fully evergreen in the southern US and deciduous in colder climates.

Life Expectancy

With good care, Sweetbay magnolias may live 60 to 80 years although some specimens have been estimated to live to 130!

Sweetbay Magnolia Tree Growing Zone and Conditions

To help your Sweetbay magnolia tree live its best life for as long as possible, it’s important to nail the basics. Let’s find out its ideal soil, sunlight conditions, and growing sweet spots.

Grow Zones and Hardiness

Sweetbay grows well in USDA Zones 4 through 10.

Note that the warmer climates in Zones 8 and above can see it grow up to 35 feet and more on a single trunk while colder regions near Zone 4, Zone 5, and even Zone 6 will result in a considerably smaller multi-stemmed shrub.

This variety is very cold-hardy, and compared to most other magnolias, Sweetbay is highly tolerant of wet, swampy soils.

Sun Requirements

Provide this magnolia with at least 4 hours of full sun each day as it will tolerate partial shade. However, 6-8 hours of direct sun will reward you with more blooms!

Soil Preferences

Sweetbay magnolias, native to the southeastern United States and up the Atlantic coast to New York, naturally cope well in wet soils and can tolerate flooding now and then, but they will grow best in fertile loamy or sandy soil that drains well.

Add plenty of organic matter like compost and well-rotted manure into the planting hole for a rich, moist quality, and amend native soil as necessary to create a slightly acidic medium (anywhere between 5.5 and 6.5 pH is perfect).

How To Plant Sweetbay Magnolia 

  1. Choosing a site where your new tree will have 20 feet of space for its spread, dig a planting hole roughly 1½ to 2 times larger than the tree’s rootball and a little deeper than the height of the rootball itself.
  2. Gently coax the tree from its nursery pot, and position the tree in the center of the hole. Fill halfway with soil.
  3. Water the hole well, allow it to drain, and fill the remainder of the hole with soil.
  4. Carefully tamp down the soil with your foot, and add a 2-3 inch layer of mulch (grass clippings, shredded bark, compost, etc.) around the trunk to protect and deliver moisture to the surface roots.

Growing Sweetbay Magnolias in Containers

Its compact vase-like shape can make Sweetbay a great container-grown patio tree!

Be sure to use a pot twice as wide and deep as the root system to prevent the soil from drying out too quickly, and water the soil several times a week for the first few months to keep things moist.

A peat-based potting mix will suffice for Sweetbay magnolias, and you will also need to increase your fertilizer use compared with ground-grown trees to counteract quicker nutrient loss through watering.

Caring for a Sweetbay Magnolia Tree

After planting your Sweetbay magnolia, keep it in fine shape by supplying the water and nutrients it needs. Long-term care also means learning how to maintain its naturally graceful shape with timely pruning.

Watering

Treat this bog-loving Magnolia to a deep soaking around the roots twice weekly for the first year after planting. Once established and more robust, take watering down to once a week during little rainfall.

Fertilization

The organic slow-release of nutrients that mulch provides should suffice. Otherwise, apply a granular fertilizer made for acid-loving trees and plants once a year around early spring. (I recommend this one.)

Pruning

Help your Sweetbay magnolia retain its naturally graceful shape by pruning out crowded branches using clean, sharp pruning shears. Lower branches can be removed if desired. 

Don’t forget to remove any diseased or broken limbs as well as branches full of dead leaves as you spot them too.

Start to prune your magnolia once the tree is about 2 years old and do so after flowering has finished to avoid damaging next year’s flower growth.

Pests, Diseases & Common Problems of Sweetbay Magnolia 

This hardy variety isn’t troubled by much, but fungal leaf spot can be an issue when the canopy is moist and overcrowded, leaving tiny brown spots and patches on the foliage.

Treat the infection with copper fungicide (find it here), and keep the canopy well-ventilated with necessary pruning.

Sap-sucking pests like thrips and scale insects may also visit the tree in less-than-ideal growing conditions, but the damage is usually minimal. 

Manage bug infestations with a spray of neem oil or other organic pesticides.

Other general issues you might see on this tree are yellow-light green leaves (an indication the soil is too alkaline) or browned and dry foliage (a sign your Sweetbay needs more water).

Propagating Sweetbay Magnolia 

You can make multiples of your Sweetbay magnolia via seed, layering, or stem cuttings. The latter is by far the easier and faster method of the tree, so let’s see how it works:

  1. Taking sharp, sterile pruning shears, cut a 6-8 inch section from a young green stem, and remove the lower leaves so that just two remain. 
  2. Place the cutting in a jar of fresh water to keep it from drying out.
  3. Next, fill a 10-inch nursery pot with a peat and vermiculite potting mix, and pot your new cutting in the center. 
  4. Water the potting mix until moist, and cover the cuttings in a plastic humidity cover (a plastic bag works in a pinch).
  5. Keep the pot in indirect sunlight, and anticipate root growth in 3-4 weeks!

Landscape Ideas

Their natural tolerance for boggy, swampy soil makes them trees to plant beside ponds and streams. 

A Sweetbay tree can make a nice dense shade tree by your porch or can be planted with others to create a lovely privacy screen. It is also an excellent specimen tree for lawns.

Sweetbay Magnolia Trees for Sale – Where To Buy

Sweetbay magnolias are available from many online nurseries in larger tree forms or compact shrub sizes to suit your climate and landscape plans. 

Most retailers ship within days, often with tree experts on hand to assist you at each step! Here are some of the best:

Related Questions:

When Is the Best Time To Plant a Sweetbay Magnolia Tree?

Fall and winter are the best times to plant a Sweetbay magnolia tree. Planting in this period allows time for the roots to establish well before the following seasons of spring growth, according to the Louisiana State University College of Agriculture.

Can You Transplant a Sweet Bay Magnolia Tree?

Yes, you can transplant a Sweetbay magnolia tree. Aim to transplant your tree in the early morning hours before the high midday temperatures can set in as this will reduce stress to the tree. 

Watering the tree about an hour before transplanting can also help to reduce stress.

Final Thoughts

This is a stunning evergreen tree or shrub with plenty to offer throughout the seasons from delicate lemon-scented blooms to green and silvery leaves, stunning bark, and bright red raspberry-like fruit!

Sweetbay magnolia is highly tolerant of boggy, swampy soil and can grow in a wide Grow Zone range.

Remember that colder regions will mean a modest Sweetbay shrub while warmer climates allow this magnolia variety to grow tall and mighty!

Before deciding that the Sweetbay magnolia is right for you, explore these stunning varieties first: