Sweetbay magnolia trees are one of the most beloved of the magnolia family (Magnoliaceae). They are well-loved for their glossy green leaves, showy white flowers that have a combined smell of vanilla and citrus, and their attractive crown shape.
These trees can be either an evergreen magnolia (green leaves all year long) or a deciduous tree (shedding leaves seasonally) depending on their growing location. Sweetbay magnolias have evergreen foliage when they grow in southern locations with warmer climates, and they have deciduous foliage when they grow in northern locations with colder climates.
Sweetbay magnolias go by several names, and you may have heard them be called a laurel magnolia (because of the smell of their inner bark) white bay magnolia, or beaver tree. They got the nickname beaver tree from early American settlers who used their fleshy roots as bait for beaver traps.
These medium to large trees are the most cold-hardy out of all the magnolia tree species, and can be found growing along the Atlantic coastal plains of the United States, from southern Florida up towards Long Island, and even into southern Ontario in Canada! They exist in USDA zone 5-10.
If you’re feeling curious, head on over to 32 Types of Magnolia Trees to find out the characteristics of some other magnolia species. We’ve also got an article about different types of Fruit Trees, and we didn’t stop there! We’ve compiled a monster list of 101 Types of Trees from all around the world too!
What do Sweetbay Magnolia Trees Look Like?
Magnolia trees are known for having very shallow and wide-spreading root systems. These trees will have roots that can grow up to 4 times as far as the width of their canopy! For this reason, some people consider magnolia trees as having invasive roots.
Magnolias have fleshy roots that are large and flexible and are kind of resembling ropes. They grow very shallow in the soil and will grow in whichever direction there is a water source. If that water source were to be a crack in a plumbing pipe, it would do damage. This is why it is advised to plant magnolias far away from houses.
The average sweetbay magnolia tree will reach heights of 30 meters in its lifetime, but that will change depending on the growing location of the tree. If a sweetbay magnolia is growing in warmer climates it will grow to be much taller, but if it is growing in colder climates it will be much smaller.
Sweetbay magnolia trees have irregular and compact crowns. They have upright trunks that are multi-stemmed. Branches split away from the trunk quite low down on the trunk and can sometimes give a young tree the appearance of being a shrub.
Sweetbay magnolias have bark that is smooth and a gray/brown color. Young branches emerge first smooth and green color. The inner bark of the sweetbay magnolia is known to smell like bay spice, which is where it got the nickname “laurel bay magnolia”.
Sweetbay magnolia leaves are a simple obovate shape and 5 inches long. They have smooth margins and are around 5 inches long. A leaf is dark glossy green on the topside, and it has a silvery downy underside. Leaves emerge in early spring.
When they grow in warmer climates, leaves will persist on a branch all year long. When they grow in colder climates, leaves will first turn yellow, then brown before they fall off in autumn.
How do Sweetbay Magnolia Trees Reproduce?
Sweetbay magnolia trees have perfect flowers, meaning that they possess both female reproductive organs and male reproductive organs. The pollen from one flower can be moved to the anther of the same flower, the flower of the same plant, or the flower of another plant. Pollen is dispersed by either wind or from bees or beetles.
Sweetbay magnolia flowers are large, nearly as big as their leaves. They are a creamy white color and have 6-15 petal-like tepals. Flowers have a very strong vanilla scent and they can be smelled from several hundred yards away. They bloom in late summer, usually mid-June (depending on their growing location).
Once a sweetbay magnolia tree is fertilized, it will produce fruit as a fused aggregate of follicles. These fruits are cucumber shaped and 3-5cm long. They emerge a green color and eventually mature into a deep pink/red color.
Once the fruit is mature it will split open to release long black seeds. These seeds are covered into a fleshy red casing which attracts various bird, insect, and mammal species. Animals will eat these bright red seeds and then disperse them through their fecal matter.
Sweetbay magnolia trees will start to produce flowers once they reach the age of 10, and will experience productive seed crops every 4-5 years. They will produce flowers up until the age of 30. The average sweetbay magnolia will live to be about 50 years old.
What are Some Other Magnolia Tree Species?
The Mountain Magnolia Tree (Magnolia Fraseri)
Mountain magnolias are also referred to as Fraser magnolia trees. They are native to the southeastern United States and will only grow in tropical lowlands. They are a smaller species of magnolia with creamy white flowers.
The Bigleaf Magnolia Tree (Magnolia Macrophylla)
Bigleaf magnolia trees are native to the southeastern United States and northern Mexico. They have both the largest leaves and the largest flowers of any tree that is native to North America. Leaves can be over 30 inches long, with a tree height of 20 meters.
The Cucumber Tree (Magnolia Acuminata)
Cucumber trees are not actually the trees that grow cucumbers, but rather they are a magnolia tree that produces fruit that is oddly shaped like a cucumber. These trees are also called blue magnolias and are native to the northeastern part of the United States and southeastern Canada. These trees have conspicuous flowers that only grow at the very top of the tree crown.
The Umbrella Magnolia Tree (Magnolia Tripetala)
Umbrella magnolia trees are named after their large clustered leaves that grow on the tips of branches, and that create an umbrella-shaped canopy. They are native to the Appalachian Mountains and the Ozarks. They grow to 15 meters in height with showy white flowers that have a citrus scent.
The Saucer Magnolia Tree (Magnolia x Soulangeana)
Saucer magnolias are a hybrid magnolia tree that was designed specifically for large leaves and showy flowers. They are a very popular large shrub or small tree that is commonly grown on the east coast and west coast of North America. Their flowers bloom very early in the year and can be either pink or purple.
The Southern Magnolia Tree (Magnolia Grandiflora)
Southern magnolia trees are sometimes called bull bay trees. They are a large tree that is native to the southeastern United States and grow only in lowland subtropical forests. These are a very tall magnolia species, gaining heights over 35 meters, and have large white flowers that have a lemon scent.
Where do Sweetbay Magnolia Trees Grow?
The sweetbay magnolia tree is a native plant to the Atlantic coastal plains of the eastern United States. Their growing range starts in southern Florida and heads northward to Long Island, and there are isolated populations as far north as southern Ontario. Sweetbays are the cold hardiest of the magnolia species.
They will commonly be found growing in the lowlands and swamps of these areas. They only grow in very close proximity to bodies of water as they need consistently moist soils. Their USDA growing zone is 5 through 10.
What are the Growing Conditions of Sweetbay Magnolia Trees?
Sweetbay magnolias prefer to grow in nutrient rich soils. It must be consistently wet soil, or else the tree will perish. They are considered as being a wetland flowering plant.
They cannot exist in alkaline soil, as that will cause flowers to grow improperly. They thrive in acidic soil.
Sweetbay magnolias, as a flowering tree, prefer to have full sun in order to have a successful bloom season. They prefer to exist in partial shade in areas that experience intense summer heat, as their flowers can become scorched.
How are Sweetbay Magnolia Trees Used?
Sweetbay magnolias are known for their very attractive and showy creamy white fragrant flowers with an intense vanilla scent. These flowers can often be smelled several hundred yards away! They are also prized for their neat shape and glossy dark green leaves. All of these attributes make this tree a very popular ornamental tree in parks and gardens.
The sweetbay magnolia tree provides a very important source of habitat and food for various insect and bird species. They are specifically the only known habitat for the larvae of the sweetbay silkmoth!