How to Grow the Sweetbay Magnolia Tree

Sweetbay magnolia tree branch with small white flower surrounded by lance-shaped leaves

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

In This Article

The sweetbay magnolia is a beautiful flowering tree (or shrub) native to North America that can be either evergreen or deciduous, depending on the weather in the USDA zone where it is grown. Its emerald lance-shaped leaves are silver or white on the underside, and it boasts creamy white, lemon-scented flowers that appear at the end of spring or in early summer. Each flower will open in the morning and close at night, lasting for around two or three days before falling from the tree.

Sweetbay magnolia trees grow at a medium-fast rate, often adding between one and two feet a year to their overall height. They're best planted in the early spring and will bear red, cone-like fruit in the fall once their blooms disappear, eventually going dormant in the winter (in most areas).

Botanical Name Magnolia virginiana
Common Name Sweetbay magnolia,  
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 10–35 ft. tall, 10–35 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type Moist, rich
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time  Late spring, early summer
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 5–10 (USDA)
Native Area North America

Sweetbay Magnolia Care

If you're looking to add a bit of shade, greenery, and beauty to your landscape, look no further than a flowering tree. While there are many eye-catching options out there, the Magnoliaceae family is among the most well-known and incorporates nearly 250 species, including the sweetbay magnolia tree. First cultivated in the southeastern United States, sweetbay magnolia can be grown either as a tree or pruned into a shrub. In many ways, it closely resembles its cousin, the larger (and arguably more famous) Southern magnolia.

The sweetbay magnolia tree requires easy, average care, including wet soil and either full sun or partial shade. It's possible your immature tree won't bloom for several years—however, once it does, you will be rewarded with fragrant flowers, followed by bursts of ripe red fruit in the fall, which will attract all sorts of wildlife to the landscape. When fully mature, the tree can reach heights of over 30 feet.

Sweetbay magnolia tree with thin branches with emerald leaves and white flower in front of wooden fence

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Sweetbay magnolia tree branch with lance-shaped leaves surrounding white flower in center

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Sweetbay magnolia tree branches with emerald and lance-shaped leaves closeup

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Light

The sweetbay magnolia tree isn't too picky about the light it receives, thriving in both full sunlight and partial shade. Like many flowering varietals, the more sunlight it gets (at least six to eight hours daily), the more likely it will be to be flush with blooms.

Soil

In order for the sweetbay magnolia to thrive, plant it in soil that is moist, rich, and flush with organic matter. Another perk of the sweetbay magnolia tree: Unlike most other magnolia trees, it can tolerate wet, boggy soils and soils that are predominantly clay. Additionally, the soil should have an acidic pH level between 5.5 and 6.5. If you notice the leaves turning yellow, it's a good indication that the pH levels in the soil are too alkaline and should be amended.

Water

The sweetbay magnolia tree appreciates water and should be watered deeply as it gets established and matures. Once mature, plan to water the tree as necessary, ensuring the soil doesn't dry out for long periods of time. In times of warmer weather (around or above 75 degrees Fahrenheit to 80 degrees Fahrenheit), it may need additional waterings.

Temperature and Humidity

Overall, the sweetbay magnolia tree doesn't have any special temperature or humidity requirements, so long as it's grown in the proper hardiness zones. During the winter months in cooler zones, pad the roots with several inches of mulch to protect them from frost. Generally, the tree will grow smaller in cooler climates.

Fertilizer

To ensure your sweetbay magnolia tree thrives, feed it with a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer once a season for at least the first three years of its life.

Pruning Sweetbay Magnolia

In colder climates, the sweetbay magnolia tree is often pruned into a shrub-like appearance. Additionally, there's a chance that the tree will grow multiple trunks—choose the strongest one (often called the "central leader") and prune away the other lower branches continually until the desired shape is achieved. Be sure not to prune the tree in this manor until it is at least two years old—younger trees typically cannot handle vigorous pruning.

Common Pests and Diseases

The sweetbay magnolia tree is typically free of diseases, though you may see some leaf spot develop from time to time. When it comes to pests, scale and tulip tree leaf miner tend to be the most common annoyances. Scale can be controlled to some degree by using neem oil. When it comes to the tulip tree leaf miner, try to avoid using pesticides since these may also kill the parasitic wasps that are its natural predators. Instead, insecticides are sometimes used to prevent egg laying and to kill larvae.