Magnolia virginiana, most commonly known as sweetbay magnolia, or merely sweetbay (also swampbay, swamp magnolia, whitebay, or beaver tree), is a member of the magnolia family, Magnoliaceae. It was the first magnolia to be scientifically described under modern rules of botanical nomenclature, and is the type species of the genus Magnolia; as Magnolia is also the type genus of all flowering plants (magnoliophytes), this species in a sense typifies all flowering plants.
Magnolia virginiana is a deciduous or evergreen tree to 30 m tall, native to the southeastern United States. Whether it is deciduous or evergreen depends on climate; it is evergreen in areas with milder winters in the south of its range, and is semi-evergreen or deciduous further north. The leaves are alternate, simple (not lobed or pinnate), with entire margins, 6-12 cm long, and 3-5 cm wide. The bark is smooth and gray, with the inner bark mildly scented, the scent reminiscent of the bay laurel spice.
The flowers are creamy white, 8-14 cm diameter, with 6-15 petal-like tepals. The flowers carry a very strong vanilla scent that can sometimes be noticed several hundred yards away. The fruit is a fused aggregate of follicles, 3-5 cm long, pinkish-red when mature, with the follicles splitting open to release the 1 cm long seeds. The seeds are black but covered by a thinly fleshy red coat, which is attractive to some fruit-eating birds that swallow the seeds, digest the red coating, and disperse the seeds in their droppings.
While the plant normally grows in wetter conditions, it will grow well in the garden, especially if given high shade. It tolerates clay soils, but always benefits from an addition of organic matter to the soils around the root ball.