Native Plant Profiles

Sweetbay Magnolia: Adding Life to Your Garden

Please welcome Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities Coordinator Kim Brand. Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities initiative is a partnership program involving more than 20 organizations whose mission is to create a more bird-friendly North Carolina. This vision statement guides the goals and projects of the group: “Bird-friendly communities give birds the opportunity to succeed by providing connected habitat dominated by native plants, minimizing threats posed by the built environment, and engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in stewardship of nature.”

The Sweetbay Magnolia is among our Bird-Friendly Native Plants of the Year for 2016. Find this and other plants at your local participating retailer

My daughters call our Southern Magnolia tree, Magnolia grandiflora, “Mama Magnolia” because that tree is the size of a small guest cottage and big enough for play. It may be hard to find space to plant a Big Mama, but you can still get many of the benefits of magnolias by planting its little cousin, the Sweetbay Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana. Although it won’t be able to serve as a child’s playhouse, it still provides great benefits to birds and people!

Great for Birds

Sweetbay Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, is native to the NC piedmont and coastal plain. Like the familiar Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), Sweetbay Magnolia has large, sweet-smelling, creamy white flowers (April through July) and spiffy “cones” with bright red fruits in the late summer and fall (July through October). The fruits will attract a variety of birds – woodpeckers, tanagers, grosbeaks, cardinals and finches.

Sweetbay Magnolia is also native to more regions of North Carolina than Southern Magnolia, which is native only to our coastal plain. However, you will see Southern Magnolia growing in the mountains and piedmont because it has escaped from cultivation.

Magnolias play host to 21 species of moths and butterflies, so they are also a source of caterpillars – the go-to food source for chicks and one more reason why planting Sweetbay Magnolia will add more life to your garden!

How to Grow

Sweetbay Magnolia is evergreen except in extreme cold. Choose a site with sun to partial sun and wet-to-moist soil to help your bird-friendly sweetbays thrive.

The canopy of the Sweetbay Magnolia is just 8 to 20 feet wide. Depending on how you prune it, this plant can become a graceful understory tree or a multi-trunked shrub. In Native Plants of the Southeast, Dr. Larry Mellichamp recommends the latter, so you can see and smell the lemon-scented flowers.

Planted around a patio, Sweetbay Magnolia creates a “semi-transparent enclosure” – an idea from The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy. It will even thrive in a patio container.

Sweetbay Magnolia is one of our 2016 Bird-Friendly Native Plants of the Year. Check out our Growing Guide for more details on this and more bird-friendly native plants for North Carolina. 

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