Tree of the Day: Sweetbay Magnolia

aka a host of other names, including swamp-bay, white-bay, and swamp laurel

Magnolia virginiana

Maybe I should dub this “magnolia week”.  It is that time of year.  Sweetbay is a coastal plains plant, so I wouldn’t expect to see it in the Potomac Gorge, except maybe on the southern end.  (The one pictured here is from my evergreen garden, which is slowly becoming a native plants showcase.) Its native range is from southern Massachusetts along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to Texas. It’s endangered in Massachusetts and New York, and threatened in Pennsylvania and Tennessee.


This magnolia likes wet, acid soil.  It’s a slow-growing, small-to-medium sized tree, often multi-trunked, with a narrow crown, making it suitable for narrow vertical spaces in the landscape – say next to a building, or as a street tree.  In warmer climates it’s evergreen.  The flowers have a lovely, mildly citrusy scent.

For any gardeners who might be curious, surrounding the sweetbay in the picture to the right are:
redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Burford holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii Nana’)
cotoneaster (Cotoneaster salsifolius ‘Scarlet Leader’)
false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Gold Mop’)
bird’s nest spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’)

Tree of the Day: Bigleaf Magnolia


aka large-leaved cucumber tree
Magnolia macrophylla

edit: I later learned that this species is not considered native to Maryland; it is mostly found from Kentucky south to the Gulf of Mexico coast.

A few weeks ago I was hiking in the woods around Belmont Manor and Historic Park* in central Maryland, near the Patapsco River, when I stumbled on a stand of trees with enormous leaves. Given the size of the leaves – they looked almost tropical – and given how many invasive species I’ve found in that area, I assumed it was alien.  So I took a few quick pictures, and researched it later.

Never assume.  This crazy tree (you almost have to see it to believe it) is indeed native to the area.  It grows mostly in the southern Appalachians, with scattered populations elsewhere (like the Maryland Piedmont) but is uncommon within its range. It’s an understory tree (a tall one) that suffers from competition from other trees.  It doesn’t reproduce very quickly, either.  So to stumble across one stand consisting of a few dozen individuals was quite remarkable.


Just a few days ago, I was back in that area hiking with a friend, and to our joy we saw a few of the trees in bloom.


The leaves can grow to two feet long – the longest leaf of any native North American tree.  And the flowers can grow to one foot wide – the largest flower of any native North American plant.

By the way, you’ll never see them as shown in the first photo, unless your friend holds a branch down with a trekking pole, like mine did so I could get that picture.

*If you ever visit Belmont, stop in the nature center and borrow a copy of the wildflower guide – my graduation project for the Maryland Master Naturalist program. Once it’s finished, that is.  In another month or two…

Tree of the Day: Tulip Poplar



aka tuliptree, yellow poplar
Liriodendron tulipifera



This species is one of only two in the genus Liriodendron; the other one is from the other side of the world.  Its native range is from southern New England and Ontario to Florida and west to Louisiana.

Tulip poplar grows fast up to 170 feet tall, and can live up to 300 years.  The wood is valuable in construction.

If you’re familiar with magnolias from landscaping, you can see why this tree is in the magnolia family.  The flower is a few inches wide and hard to miss, unless hidden by leaves.  Speaking of magnolias, I found a very interesting one recently.  That will be the next post on this blog.