Sweet bay, Magnolia virginiana, likes it wet. So much so, that it's also called swampbay and swamp laurel. It's found in marshes, depressions, bogs and swamps, of course, where it can be the dominant plant species. Woods where sweet bay dominates are called bay forests, bayheads, or pocosins.
Sweet bay ranges over most of the eastern United States, as far north as Massachusetts and as far west as Arkansas and Texas. It's a native to Florida and found in most counties. Among the few exceptions: Palm Beach County.
In Massachusetts, sweet bay is only found in Glouster; scientists aren't sure if it's native to the area or the offspring of an ornamental that escaped into the wild. The next closest sweet bay population is found on the eastern shore of Long Island, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Sweet bay can grow to 100 feet, with a three-foot diameter trunk, but typically is 20 to 40 feet in height with a narrow trunk. In the north, it can be shrubby, or a multi-stemmed tree. It's also deciduous, meaning it drops its leaves in the fall. Down our way, it's usually a single trunk tree and holds its leaves year round. The leaves are long and somewhat narrow, glossy green above, and white or gray on the underside. It puts out large white flower in spring and summer that produce a cone-like fruit full of bright red seeds that ripen in the fall.
It's similar in looks to loblolly bay, Gordonia lasianthus, particularly the large, white flowers. The easiest way to tell the two apart is looking the leaves. Loblolly leaves are slightly serrated, or toothed on the outer edges, while sweet bay is not. Loblolly bay is a member of Theaceae, the tea family, so the two aren't related.
Song birds, quail and wild turkey dine on the seeds, as do squirrels and other small mammals. Deer and cattle will browse on the leaves and twigs. Mockingbirds, robins, eastern kingbirds and a few others will use sweet bay for nest material. Black bears use sweet bay for food and in some places, crucial habitat as well.
It is a host plant for the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly. Other butterflies use sweet bay flowers for the nectar. Sweet bay can survive fire, important in places like the Everglades that are prone to frequent burning. But unlike some plants, sweet bay does not require fire to thrive. Fire might "top kill" the tree, but it can resprout from unexposed roots.
The Houma of Louisiana and the Rappahannock of Virginia used sweet bay leaves, bark, and roots to treat colds, rheumatism, pleurisy, cough, consumption, typhoid fever, "autumnal fever" and to prevent chills. The Rappanhannock also used sweetbay as a hallucinogen. Early European colonists used the root to bait beaver traps and would call sweet bay the beaver tree. Sweet bay wood is used to make furniture and in interior finishing work.
Sweet bay is a member of the magnolia family, Magnoliaceae. Other common names include sweetbay magnolia, sweet-bay and sweetbay.