Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Sweetbay Magnolia - Magnolia virginiana   L.
Members of Magnoliaceae:
Members of Magnolia with account distribution info or public map:
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Section 4 » Order Magnoliales » Family Magnoliaceae
DistributionThroughout the Coastal Plain, found in all counties there. Ranges west into the eastern Piedmont, where found west to Person, Chatham, and Anson counties. Widely scattered in the central and western Piedmont, west to Yadkin, Iredell, and Polk counties. Photographed from the Mountains in June 2023 in Transylvania County, by Owen Carson (Facebook photos).

This is a species of the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains and into the lower Piedmont. It ranges north to MA, and south outside of the Mountains to southern FL and eastern TX. It does not occur in WV or KY. Recently discovered in western Cuba.
AbundanceCommon and quite widespread in the Coastal Plain; infrequent to fairly common along the eastern edge of the Piedmont, but rare to uncommon in the central and western portions of the province. Extremely rare in the Mountains, where probably a natural occurrence.
HabitatThis is a species of acidic wetlands, especially pocosin and bay habitats. It is common in some Carolina bays, in extensive pocosins, in blackwater swamps, sandhill seepages, and streamhead pocosins. In the Piedmont it is usually found in acidic streamhead forests or in smaller floodplain forests and swamps, but not in brownwater floodplains.
PhenologyBlooms from April to July, and fruits from July to October. For a tree or shrub, it has quite a long period in which the flowers bloom and are visible -– fairly early in spring to almost midsummer.
IdentificationThis is the state’s most numerous magnolia species and is thus well known to field workers. It is a small to medium evergreen to semi-evergreen tree, averaging about 50-55 feet tall. In most of the state, the leathery and shiny dark green leaves (above) remain on the trees into early or mid-winter, but closer to the coast can remain nearly all winter; normally a Sweetbay Magnolia in the state usually has at least some leaves remaining on it all winter. The leaves are elliptical, about 4 inches long and much narrower, and are almost white below, making them easy to identify, as very few species have leaves with such a distinct contrast between dark green above and white below. In winter, the white lower surface of the leaves are easily visible –- remaining on the trees or on the ground -- to someone walking in a forest where this species occurs. The flowers are fairly large and cup-shaped, with numerous rounded petals in layers, forming a white flower about 2.5-3 inches across. These flowers are conspicuous all over the trees to a driver speeding down highways where the species occurs. By late summer (July), however, Loblolly Bay (Gordonia lasianthus) begins to bloom, and thus there could be brief confusion about species while in a moving vehicle.
Taxonomic CommentsWeakley (2018) and some other references list varieties for this species; the one found in NC is the nominate one – M. virginiana var. virginiana. Weakley (2020) questions whether var. australis occurs in NC; trees in the southeastern corner of the state (e.g. Holly Shelter Game Land) should be assessed to see if any of them fit.

Other Common Name(s)Sweetbay (or Sweet Bay), Swamp Magnolia
State RankS5
Global RankG5
State Status
US Status
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B.A. SorrieFlowering as a shrub 5 feet tall. Sandhills Game Land. ScotlandPhoto_natural
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