April 5, 2010

Sweetbay Magnolia

Magnolia virginiana 'Jim Wilson' MOONGLOW
This magnolia is not the big saucer magnolia, that hussy who blooms early in spring in her underwear before she puts any leaves on.  This is a much more refined, ladylike magnolia that has creamy yellow blossoms that shyly hide in the foliage in June.  It's a small tree, reserved and quiet. It's also called a swamp magnolia, and it likes some shade, some wet, and acid soil.  A real understory woodland gem.

I planted two trees to bracket the back corner of our house, with one directly outside our bedroom window on the north side.  The blooms are supposed to have a lovely lemon scent.  How great is that, wafting in through the bedroom window in early summer?

But so far it hasn't had any fragrance whatsoever.  Both saplings are young, but they have both bloomed already.  Click to expand the photo below -- can you see the few yellow magnolia flowers hiding in the foliage?  Some red astilbes add color behind the magnolia.

I'm hoping as these trees mature there will be fragrance; I have my heart set on awakening to the smell of Jim's coffee brewing in the kitchen and my sweetbay magnolia's delicate fragrance coming in through the open window on the morning breeze.

The Moonglow variety is the cold-hardiest of the sweetbays, reliable here in zone 5.  It mostly keeps its foliage through the winter, although leaves will drop in a really bitter cold snap.  Its summer foliage is beautiful, with white undersides and dark green waxy tops to the leaves.  It glitters in a breeze, the fluttering silvery leaf bottoms making the whole tree look like diamonds being shaken from a jewelry box.

I have moved one of my sweetbays two times already, before settling it in its present location.  Despite its youth and the delicate narrow shape and form, when I dug it up I battled a huge root system.  I pruned a major girdling root off the other magnolia, worrying that I'd severed the main structure of the plant, but it survived just fine.  These are small trees with big spreading root systems.

My friend Becky has a nice one growing in her Kentucky garden:

And when Becky and I toured Longwood Gardens, we saw mature sweetbays growing near water.  They were huge.  Everything about this tree is supposed to be smaller, narrow and elegant --- I hope mine aren't too close to the house.  Actually I think they are.  But if this one wants to come right in our bedroom window and caress me with its lemon scent some day, then fine.

Magnolia virginiana 'Jim Wilson' MOONGLOW
in University of Connecticut's plant files
in Mobot's database


  1. Hi Laurie, I like your photo of the sweet bay with the red astilbe. It's a great combination! I have a sweet bay magnolia. It is in the front garden, not a particularly wet area. It is about thirty feet tall and about half that wide. The blossoms do have a great lemony smell, but most of the time you have to stick your nose in to smell them. I love the red seed pods that remain after the blooms fall off.

  2. I just planted my first Magnolia last year. We'll see if it made it through the winter, the snow is still melting here. Wish I could try a sweetbay but I don't think it would be happy in my zone 3/4 yard.

    Christine in Alaska

  3. You've described the Sweet Bay's charms so wonderfully!

    I'm not sure why yours are not fragrant, but I hope they are in the future. The flowers do have a strong lemon fragrance. I like it a lot better than Magnolia grandiflora.

    You know, I've read about huge Sweet Bays but haven't yet seen one in person. There's a mature specimen at the NC Botanical Garden that's been allowed room to grow (which it often doesn't get here in the coastal plain in its crowded natural conditions) and it's a multi-stem specimen that might be 20 feet high. I don't know how old it is but I'm pretty sure it's over 20 years old.

  4. I like your sweet bay and magnolia trees. You'll love the fragrance right next to your window. I have a jasmine next to mine and am overwhelmed with the lovely scent some nights! Your garden spaces are really nice!

  5. Laurrie, thank you for introdusing me to sweet bay, I can't believe I have never heard of her. She sounds glorious, and lemon scented, who could resist.

  6. I think your description of diamonds being shaken from a jewelry box is absolutley divine. What a lovely sounding tree. Best wishes with them!

  7. Hello Laurrie, having something lemon scented just outside the bedroom window sounds wonderful. I'll keep my fingers crossed that your sweetbay will share her lovely lemon scent with you.

  8. Deborah, how great that you have a mature one... 30 feet high! I hope there's a picture coming on one of your posts. I'm always so anxious to see what my baby trees will look like.

    Christine, you're right, a sweetbay wouldn't make it for you, it's semi evergreen and I don't think Alaska would be kind to it!

    Sweet bay, thanks for visiting my sweetbay... I think of you whenever I look at it!

    Kimberly, thanks for stopping by. Jasmine is too heavy a scent for me, I'm hoping this magnolia's scent will be very delicate but so far, nothing.

    Deborah, I had not heard of sweet bay either until I found one at the nursery. I think the bigger showier magnolias outsell her in commerce.

    Garden Ms. S, I like diamonds in the garden, I just don't wear them, my trees do.

    Gippslandgardener, if this magnolia never gets any bloom scent, I may have to get Jim to make lemon scones for breakfast every day.

    Thanks, everyone, for visiting my tree.

  9. This is a plant I don't know very well, but I do love the sound of the perfume. I hope it produces that wonderful scent for you soon. They both certainly look pretty happy in their present location.

    Thanks very much for your lovely comments on my tattered butterfly mosaic post ... very kind of you.

  10. Wiseacre, a sweetbay should do well on L.I. I hope you do plant one and it's fragrant.

    Bernie, thanks for admiring my sweetbays. I'll post if they ever do have any scent.

  11. I have two sweet bay magnolias which I was told would bloom and have a wonderful fragrance. This is the 3rd or 4th year I have had them and the one has never bloomed and the other one had ONE bloom last year and ONE bloom the year before. I trimmed them back last fall to see if that would help and they are nice and tall with beautiful green leaves but still no sign of a bloom. What is wrong? My friend has one that gets many blooms and is so sweet smelling. I was told that I could smell the fragrance from this tree as soon as I stepped out on my back porch. No so.

  12. Anonymous: I don't know why yours won't bloom, like most magnolias they should flower as very young trees. Mine have blooms, but the flowers have absolutely no scent! So they seem to be quite variable, both for flowers and for scent. I'm at the edge of their zone for winters (zone 5)... maybe they have more fragrance further south.

  13. I just found this blog and wanted to say to anyone else who is having the problems of anonymous, that sweetbay magnolias perform best in mostly sunny locations that have moist acidic soil. Without this 3 combination, they will get leggy and not produce many blooms. Adding some pine needles to the mulch will benefit them greatly.


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