Sweetbay Magnolia: The Tastiest Tree on the Block

Learn about the Sweetbay Magnolia in Part 1 of our species series, highlighting the five species the Root Nashville campaign will be providing our Neighborhood Planting Captains with this fall.

Blog written by AmeriCorps service member Esmeralda Figueras

Trees cast cool shade on hot summer days, provide food and shelter for wildlife, and make our city lovely. They also filter stormwater pollution, stabilize stream banks, and help prevent flooding by helping surface water penetrate the soil.

Is there anything trees can’t do?! We doubt it.

Through the Neighborhood Planting Captain program, Nashvillians can *spruce* up their yards, and soak up lots of stormwater, with large ball-and-burlap trees. The Root Nashville campaign, through the Cumberland River Compact, provides free trees to dozens of neighborhoods across Nashville each fall and winter. We provide both big canopy trees and smaller understory trees, so that everyone can find the right tree for their space.

Interested in bringing trees to your own neighborhood? Find out what it means to be a Neighborhood Planting Captain here. Or keep reading to learn all about our first tree species highlight: the sweetbay magnolia.

Sweetbay Magnolias have all the beauty and grace of the Southern Magnolia, in half the space. The flowers release a sweet fragrance that has been compared to lemons and vanilla, and which can be smelled from a great distance. Early colonists used this magnolia’s leaves as a substitute for bay leaves in soups and teas — hence the name, sweetbay.

Wildlife

Humans aren’t the only species who find the Sweetbay Magnolia delicious: songbirds, squirrels, white-footed mice, turkeys, and quails all feast on its waxy red seeds, and in winter the Sweetbay’s semi-evergreen leaves can make up as much as 25% of deers’ diet. Beavers also find the roots irresistible, so beware of planting this tree too close to a beaver lodge!

The Birds and the Beetles

Unlike many flowering plants, magnolias are primarily pollinated by beetles! Why? Because magnolias are so old, they evolved before bees existed. Magnolias are thought to have evolved about 95 million years ago, 30 million years before the oldest bee fossil, making them quite possibly the loveliest dinosaurs alive.

Once fertilized, the flowers drop their petals and give way to rosy, cone-like fruits. These in turn eventually burst open with bright red seeds. Many of those seeds will be eaten by birds, who disperse the seeds (now without the bright red coats) in their droppings. Any gardeners interested in propagating magnolia trees from seed should soak the fresh seeds, scrub off this red coating, place the seeds in damp soil, and refrigerate for 3 months to mimic the natural process of being digested by a bird and left out all winter.

Planting

Sweetbay Magnolias can grow to heights of 10-35 feet, with a canopy spread of 10-35 feet. They are multi-trunked and semi-evergreen (or semi-deciduous, depending on how you look at it) — meaning, they retain their leaves for part of the winter and, in mild climates, may not lose their leaves at all. Pruning, if necessary, is best done after the tree has had 1-2 growing seasons to establish its root system, and should be completed after the magnolia is bloomed but before it sheds its leaves, since dormant magnolias do not easily heal.

Because they are so small, it is safe to plant them relatively close to buildings and other structures, but you should still keep them at least 10 feet away from homes and 15 feet away from powerlines. They prefer moist, well-drained soils, do well in clay, and can tolerate full or partial sun exposure. In the wild, they often grow in swamps, so this is an excellent choice for anyone starting a rain garden or planting near a water body. Deer often feed on the new twigs and branches, so consider using a deer guard.

Sweetbays coming to a neighborhood near you

These sweet understory trees are a popular gardening choice and native to the area, so be on the lookout for them in your neck of the woods! Learn how to get a Sweetbay of your own through our Neighborhood Planting Captain program, or reach out to hello@rootnashville.org to put your name on the waitlist for more free tree opportunities.

All newly planted trees, regardless of what species they are or who plants them, can be counted towards the citywide goal of planting 500,000 trees by 2050! Planting season begins in mid-October, and ends in April (excluding bareroot trees, which have an extended timeframe).

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