Occasionally I do speaking engagements for garden clubs, college classes or groups of professionals. One of the presentations I share is called “The Not So Ugly Ducklings” and is about under-used trees in the landscape.
Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is almost always my lead or anchor tree in the presentation. It is my absolute favorite ornamental tree. While it may be a staple in Indianapolis, Louisville and points south, it is much more unusual to see it here in northern Illinois.
Although rated as hardy to USDA Zone 5 it is risky using it in 5A, which is where we are in northern Illinois. When you consider that it does not like dry, alkaline soil that normally seals the deal on why not to use it here in the Chicagoland area.
But even with those considerations, when sited correctly it’s a wonderful ornamental tree. After the crab, pear, lilac other Magnolia blooms are long gone late in the spring along comes sweet bay Magnolia to spice up our landscapes in June and July. The flowers have a strong resemblance to water lilies and also have a distinct lemon fragrance.
Though not as florid as some of the other Magnolia, the sheer timing of the blossoms makes it stand out in the landscape. Following flower, the tree sets attractive, distinctive seed pods for additional seasonal interest in the fall. Topping out at about 15’, sweet bay Magnolia can be nicely used near any patio or deck where serviceberry or redbud might be more routine choices.
The key to successful use of Magnolia virginiana is to A)have some protection in an established neighborhood as opposed to a more open new subdivision B)amend the soil with organic matter and dig an extra wide hole when installing it. The microclimate near Lake Michigan is usually perfect.
If you can find a good location and also locate the tree it can be a great ornamental addition to your yard and a “not so ugly duckling”.