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Sweetbay magnolia

Leaves and flowers of sweetbay magnolia.

Sweetbay magnolia is a late blooming tree native to the eastern United States.  It has fragrant, creamy-white flowers and glossy, dark green leaves with silvery undersides. This small tree is an excellent choice near patios, wood edges, and shrub borders. It is also tolerant to wet sites, such as pond edges and low areas in a landscape.

This plant has some cultivated varieties. Go to list of cultivars.


Botanical name:

Magnolia virginiana

All common names:

sweetbay magnolia, laurel magnolia, swamp magnolia

Family (English):


Family (Botanic):


Planting Site:

  • Residential and parks,
  • Under utility lines

Tree or Plant Type:

  • Tree


  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)

Native Locale:

  • North America

Landscape Uses:

  • Mixed border,
  • Patio/sidewalk,
  • Specimen,
  • Utility

Size Range:

  • Small tree (15-25 feet),
  • Compact tree (10-15 feet),
  • Large shrub (more than 8 feet)

Mature Height:

10-20 feet

Mature Width:

10-20 feet

Light Exposure:

  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily),
  • Partial sun/shade (4-6 hrs light daily)

Hardiness Zones:

  • Zone 5 (Chicago),
  • Zone 6,
  • Zone 7,
  • Zone 8,
  • Zone 9

Soil Preference:

  • Acid soil,
  • Moist, well-drained soil,
  • Wet soil


  • Wet sites,
  • Occasional flooding

Acid Soils:

  • Requires

Alkaline Soils:

  • Intolerant

Salt Spray:

  • Moderately Tolerant

Soil Salt:

  • Intolerant

Drought Conditions:

  • Intolerant

Poor Drainage:

  • Tolerant

Ornamental Interest:

  • Spring blossoms,
  • Fragrant flowers,
  • Showy fruit,
  • Showy flowers,
  • Attractive bark

Seasons of Interest:

  • late spring,
  • early summer,
  • early fall

Flower Color & Fragrance:

  • Fragrant,
  • White

Shape or Form:

  • Irregular,
  • Multi-stemmed,
  • Pyramidal,
  • Upright

Growth Rate:

  • Moderate

Transplants Well:

  • No


  • Small mammals

More Information:

Tree & Plant Care

Requires a moist site in full sun to part shade.
May need some winter protection, avoid sites that are cold and windswept in winter.
Extremely tolerant of wet conditions.
Supplemental water in dry periods.

Disease, pests, and problems

Chlorosis (yellowing) may occur in high pH soils.

Native geographic location and habitat

Native to Eastern U.S.; commonly found in wet or swampy sites.

Bark color and texture 

Young branches are smooth and green, older bark is dark gray

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Alternate ,simple, 5 inch oblong leaves. Medium to dark green above, silvery underneath.  
Fall color is yellow-brown.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Sparse, 2 to 3 inch diameter flowers.
Creamy white flowers held singly on the the branch blooms in mid-June.  Lemon scented.
Often hidden by the foliage.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

The fruit is a 2-inch long, pickle-shaped structure (aggregate)  that matures from green to pink, then red.  When mature the structure splits open to reveal bright red seeds.

Cultivars and their differences

Moonglow® sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana 'Jim Wilson'):  This cultivar is more  tolerant of cold and can retain some of its semi-evergreen foliage more successfully in northern climates.  The habit is more upright and flowers slightly larger than the species.  Zone 4.

Location of Magnolia virginiana (Sweetbay magnolia) at the Arboretum