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What is a Sweetbay Magnolia?

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  • Written By: Alex Tree
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 06 December 2016
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Sweetbay magnolia, scientifically known as Magnolia virginiana, is an evergreen or deciduous tree that belongs to the family Magnoliaceae. This tree is normally grown for the distinctive color of its foliage, fruits and flowers. It is a native to the southeastern part of the United States and is commonly used to design landscapes. Most of these trees are found in the regions of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina in the US. The natural habitats of the sweetbay magnolia have wet and moist soils, such as swamps or along streams and ponds.

Generally, the magnolia tree grows to a height of about 50 to 90 feet (15 to 27 m). With smooth gray-brown bark, the branches are spread sparsely to create an open crown. When the tree is grown outside Florida, it usually grows less than 30 feet (about 9 m) tall. Depending on the climate, the sweetbay magnolia is either deciduous or evergreen. It is short-lived in the northern part of the United States due to cold winters, and evergreen and longer-lasting in the southern areas because of the milder climates in those regions.

The simple leaves of the sweetbay magnolia are arranged alternately. Their texture is shiny and smooth on the upper surface, while fine hairs cover the surface below. These leathery oval to oblong leaves have bluntly pointed tips and measure roughly 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) long.

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In late spring and early summer, the sweetbay magnolia bears fragrant and creamy white flowers. The flowers have 6 to 15 petals and measure about 3 to 6 inches (8 to 14 cm) in diameter. Its strong vanilla scent is usually very noticeable, even from a distance.

The pinkish red fruit of the sweetbay magnolia is a collection of follicles fused together. It matures in early autumn and measures approximately 1 to 2 inches (3 to 5 cm) in length. When the follicles open, the flat, red and oval seeds are released, each measuring around 0.4 inches (1 cm) long. These seeds are eaten by some fruit-eating birds; the red coating is digested but the inner part of the seed is dispersed in droppings. The fruit also serves as a food source to gray squirrels, wild turkeys, and small rodents.

In 1678, the sweetbay magnolia was brought to England and introduced into European gardens. It was called the beaver tree by colonists because beavers were caught in traps using the fleshy roots of this tree as bait. Other common names used to refer to this tree include whitebay, swampbay, and swamp magnolia.

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