A Magnificent Magnolia

native magnolia flower
native magnolia flower Photo by Donna L. Long.

Sweetbay Magnolia has began to bloom early this spring. In the dark shade of a woods, the tall shrub glows with the soft white creaminess of large blossoms that seemly float in mid-air.

I went to Temple University’s Ambler campus arboretum especially to see who was blooming. The Magnolia virginiana L., along the walkway, was just beginning to flower. And and it’s sweet, fruity scent filled the late afternoon air. It is commonly called, ‘Sweetbay’.

I had to put my nose  deep in a blossom and breathed in. After a winter of bare trees and chilly temperatures, this heady first scent of spring was intoxicating.

Sweetbay is the most heavily scented of the magnolias. The fragrant flowers attract beetles and perhaps moths. The flowers scent is strongest in the afternoon, all the better to attract dusk-flying moths.

The bowl-shaped flowers are classic “beetle flowers”,with their large solitary flowers which are dull white to green, strongly fragrant and open during the day.

The flowers open a few at a time over a span of a month or more. So, we get to enjoy its ephemeral beauty from late spring into June.

Sweetbay is easily my favorite magnolia. Most often you hear of southern magnolias, but magnolias grow naturally around the Philadelphia area.

This multi-stemmed slender shrub is native to Philadelphia. New York and Connecticut are the northernmost part of the range. Depending on the climate, this magnolia can be evergreen, partial evergreen or deciduous.

Sweetbay is a rare and threatened plant here in southeastern Pennsylvania. It is a treat to find it growing in the sandy wetlands of the Atlantic Coastal Plain and drier upland forests of the Piedmont.

The Sweetbay Magnolia grows beneath the canopy of the oaks, hickories and Tulip tree of the local forests.

Except for the Cucumber Tree (Magnolia acuminata) all the native magnolias are understory trees. This makes magnolia a small tree good for planting in gardens.

Sweetbay has perfect flowers, meaning the blossom contains both male and female parts. The flowers bloom before the leaves open. After the flowers are fertilized, the seeds develop and are dispersed by mammals, birds, heavy rains and/or gusty winds.

I watched the showy Saucer Magnolia bloom early and end early. It’s blooms were finished as the Sweetbay began. Saucer Magnolia is not a North American native but an import from Asia. It blooms before many North American magnolias. Saucer Magnolia blooms so early, the flowers can be killed by frosts.

I have taken some gorgeous close-up shots of  it’s blossoms. The large pink and white blooms of Saucer Magnolia look somewhat artificial, like cheap plastic flowers you would find in a dollar store.

I look forward to the blooming of the magnolias. The elegance of Sweetbay is reminiscent of a well-dressed lady. Tasteful and refined but with a beauty the draws you to stop and rudely stare at someone so lovely.


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