The Sweet Bay Magnolia is one of the most underappreciated magnolias as when they bloom they fill the area with a fragrant and lemony smell. Blooms are several inches in diameter and are a waxy snow white. Bloom time is most notable in May and June, but this small tree will not be outdone and will bloom sporadically throughout the summer. The leaves are a rich green with a silvery underside, and in Jefferson County the leaves are semi-evergreen with some persisting through the winter. Seedpods form from the flower and produce red seeds that are a favorite of birds. Best planted in a naturalized area or with a groundcover underneath as some consider the tree messy – but the beauty and fragrance is worth it all.
Thomas Jefferson planted Sweet Bays adjacent to his house at Monticello and noted them in his journal for their great flower. Sweet bays were the first magnolia introduced to Europe sent by the first botanist in the colonies, John Bannister in 1688. In 1705, Robert Beverley, wrote of the blooms of the Sweet Bay Magnolia as “the pleasantest smell in the world.”
The tree is a host plant for 19 species of butterflies and moths in the greater Jefferson County area including the well-known Spicebush Swallowtail and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Birds flock to the Sweet Bay Magnolia as it supports 17 genera of birds. Mockingbirds, robins, eastern kingbirds, wood thrushes, and red eye vireos seek the tree out and feed upon its seeds. Eastern kingbirds and mockingbirds habitually use the strong stiff leaves of Sweet Bay for nest material and Swainson’s warblers, which make rare occurrences in Jefferson County, use Sweet Bay Magnolia leaves as a primary construction element for their nests, so more Sweet Bays may bring this bird back to the region.