If you were to tell me that you don’t like Virginia native plants, I’d say to check out Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) and then see if you feel the same way. It’s at home in all sorts of landscapes, from formal to wild. Here’s what you need to know about it.
Sweetbay Magnolia is a deciduous magnolia, so if you’re thinking big glossy brown evergreen leaves, that’s not this one. Sweetbay Magnolia’s leaves are oblong but much smaller than a Southern Magnolia’s. The bark is a very pretty silvery gray, and the cream colored spring blooms are gorgeous. It’s still a magnolia, after all!
Sweetbay Magnolia is a great wildlife tree. It’s a host plant for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, and the seeds are a good food source for birds and small mammals. It’s reasonably deer safe as well.
You’ll see the most growth from a Sweetbay Magnolia in full sun. The company I worked for when we first moved to Virginia had a customer in Mantua (Fairfax) for whom they planted a sweetbay years prior. It had always stayed pretty small, more like a large shrub than a tree. If you’re familiar with Mantua you know there are a LOT of mature trees. One of those trees – one that was shading the Sweetbay – had to come down, and suddenly it was a full sun front yard. No word of a lie, that tree easily grew 5 to 6 feet in two years.
Online sources are kind of useless when talking about the height of a Sweetbay Magnolia, because it varies where in its range you’re growing it. Here in Virginia, 10 to 30 feet tall is reasonable depending on conditions, and about 10 to 15 feet wide. They will tolerate some pruning and shaping if need be. The arborists have done exactly that to keep the Sweetbay in check at our featured Fredericksburg pool and landscape design.