Plant of the Week: Sweetbay Magnolia

Photo by Friends of the High LineAfter a January snowstorm, the leaves of Green Shadow sweetbay magnolia remain vibrant. Photo by Friends of the High Line

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today.

This week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.

Magnolia virginiana, sweetbay magnolia, is a small tree found throughout the lowlands and swamps of the eastern United States. In its northern range, sweetbay magnolia is semi-evergreen and rarely reaches a height above 20 feet. In the south, the tree is evergreen and may reach a height of 60 feet or more.

Sweetbay magnolia can be identified by its neat habit and aromatic, glossy green leaves that have dense silvery hairs on the underside. In springtime, the lemon-vanilla scent of its large, creamy white flowers permeates the air. In the fall, a brilliant display of bright red seed clusters contrast with the plant's dark green foliage.

The sweetbay magnolia was the first magnolia described under the rules of modern nomenclature. It is a member of the magnolia family, Magnoliaceae, an ancient plant family that evolved prior to the existence of bees, butterflies, and moths. Some botanists believe that the simple leathery flower petals and tough carpels typical of this family were a protective measure evolved to encourage pollination from beetles.

Commercially, essential oil from the flowers can be used to make perfumes. Its straight-grained wood is used for the manufacturing of furniture, broom handles, and bowls.

All of the sweetbay magnolias on the High Line are the cultivar ‘Green Shadow.' This variety was chosen because it retains an evergreen habit even in its northernmost range.

Magnolia virginiana var. australis ‘Green Shadow,’ or Green Shadow sweetbay magnolia, can be seen in the Philip A. and Lisa Maria Falcone Flyover between West 25th and West 27th Streets.

Download our January Bloom Guide.

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