Sweet Bay Magnolia

by Kyle Sweet, CGCS

The native landscapes of Sanibel vary greatly and include over fifty trees that can be a food source for our visiting migrating birds as well as the year round population of wildlife that rely on these native for survival. One of the few native trees that can provide a dietary benefit for us as well as the local wildlife is this week’s Sweet Shot, the Sweet bay Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana.

Also known as the Swamp or Laurel magnolia, the Sweet Bay magnolia is a medium sized evergreen tree, growing 25 – 40’ in height with especially attractive foliage, being bright silver-white on the underside of the leaf and dark green above. The flowers of the Sweet Bay Magnolia are creamy white and only 2-3 inches in diameter, much smaller than the large creamy white flowers of the Southern magnolia.

Flowers of the Sweet Bay Magnolia appear in late April in our area and continue to emerge throughout the month of May and into early June. Although smaller, the flowers of the Sweet Bay Magnolia have the same rich, lemony fragrance that the Southern magnolia offers in southern landscapes.

Wildlife benefits from the Sweet Bay Magnolia by feeding on its bright red fruit clusters that typically appear in the late summer or fall. A wide variety of songbirds and gray squirrels enjoy the fruit of the Sweet Bay Magnolia.

In the island landscape, the Sweet Bay Magnolia is quite diverse, handling both wet and well -drained soils as well as full sun to partial shade. Most trees are columnar is shape, but can be multi-stemmed as well. Young Sweet Bays often sprout several shoots from lower trunk, so to create a single stemmed tree may require maintenance trimming of these young shoots.

Sweet Bay Magnolia leaves are used in flavoring sauces, soups and stews much like those of the Redbay, Persea borbonia. Leaves are collected, dried, diced and used as seasoning. In some cases, the entire leaf will be used and removed prior to serving of the sauce, soup or stew. Beyond the meal, the leaves of the Sweet Bay Magnolia can be used to make a seasoned tea.

When planting any Magnolia it is important to not plant too deeply. The top of the root ball should be level or slightly above the surrounding soil. In our sandy, high pH island soil environment, it is very beneficial to dig a hole at least twice as big as the root ball of the plant and backfill the hole with good organic soil that will aid in moisture and nutrient retention. Also when planting, the root ball should be thoroughly watered in so that air pockets are removed. If large and single stemmed, anchoring the tree will be very important, especially in our windy island environment.

The Sweet Bay Magnolia is an attractive mid-sized tree that can serve as a specimen tree or just a great addition to your landscape that will provide a wildlife food source, attractive foliage and some backyard seasoning benefits to your home cooking. When deciding on plants for your landscape, you couldn’t ask for much more than that!

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