Thursday, July 3, 2008

Sweetbay magnolia

I have fragrant roses in my garden, but I can never detect their scent unless I put my nose right down into a bloom. The difficulty isn't an insensitive sense of smell. It is, rather, that I have a sweetbay magnolia in bloom at the same time. The fragrance of the magnolia is so potent that it overwhelms the scent of the roses.

Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) blooms over about six weeks from May into early July. Its flowers are small and never make a big visual impact. They bloom a few at a time, each flower lasting only a few days. Their fragrance is huge. To my nose their scent is rose-like, but much more intense.

There is a very handsome sweetbay magnolia in front of 500 Stelle Avenue.

The flowers are followed by shiny, bright red, clustered fruits(1) that ripen in August and September. The fruit is a favorite food of catbirds and mockingbirds. The photograph below shows unripe fruits on July 1.

Sweetbay magnolias are closely enough related to southern magnolias to have been hybridized with them. Unlike southern magnolias, sweetbays are mostly deciduous in this climate. Sweetbay flowers are much smaller and much more fragrant than southern magnolia flowers. Sweetbay leaves are duller and have a silvery gray underside that displays itself very attractively in a breeze.

Another feature that helps with identification is the rather smooth, light gray bark.

Sweetbays grow into large trees in the southern United States. In New Jersey a height of 25 to 30 feet is typical.

I have grown one of the hybrids of sweetbay and southern magnolias, 'Timeless Beauty'. The flowers of the hybrid resembled southern magnolia flowers. The foliage was less attractive than that of either southern or sweetbay magnolia. Worse, the hybrid's foliage suffered winter burn in winters that left pure southern magnolias unscathed. All in all, a disappointing plant.

Sweetbay magnolias are underutilized. Any garden can benefit from having their fragrance for six weeks in late spring and early summer. Very adaptable plants, they are tolerant of both wet soil and shade. A peculiarity of sweetbay magnolias is that they make a dense network of roots just beneath the soil surface. Mulch your beds heavily and the roots will grow right into the mulch. When the mulch dwindles with time, you are left with "aerial" roots. A drawback to this beautiful New Jersey native is that deer eat the leaves and stems.

Sweetbays were the first magnolias imported into Europe from the Americas. The genus was named by Linnaeus after Pierre Magnol, pioneering botanist and physician to the court of Louis XIV.

(1) The fruits are aggregates of follicles.
Copyright Gregory Palermo

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