Question: In the spring I see such beautiful magnolia trees blooming. I want to keep a native garden and was wondering if there is such a thing as a native magnolia to New Jersey?

Answer: On a recent trip to Mt. Cuba for their Wildflower Celebration the docent had the simplest but clearest explanation on why gardeners should plant natives. He said, "Native plants play with each other, non-natives fight with each other." When we use the term native we are speaking of a plant that naturally occurs within a radius of 100 miles of your area.

These plants have evolved to thrive in a particular environment and have developed complex relationships with other plants and animals. They support wildlife with food and shelter, and usually require less maintenance. An informative publication with lists of native plants for our area, titlted "Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat Improve-ment in New Jersey's Coast-al Plain Region," is available from the Cape Atlantic Conservation District at

Although not as showy as many of its relatives, the sweetbay magnolia, Mag-nolia virginiana, has its own wonderful qualities. Native to the Atlantic coastal area from Long Island south to Florida the sweetbay magnolia comes into bloom in late May with fragrant white blooms that are safe from spring frosts.

This native magnolia grows best in acid soil that is kept evenly moist. In its native environment you will usually find it growing along stream banks and swamps. Although it does well in moist soil it tolerates the average backyard soil and will tolerate moderate drought. Blooming is best in full sun but will tolerate partial shade. Its growth form is more like a multi-stem shrub than a single trunk tree. When happy, the sweetbay can grow to 30 feet with a comparable width. Normally pest free it can suffer from scale when stressed growing in excessively dry area.

The top of the leaves are glossy dark green with silver undersides. Foliage is evergreen in its most southern range but in our area they can be semi-evergreen to deciduous. The creamy white flowers have nine petals, 2 to 3 inches in diameter and have a sweet lemony fragrance. Although they begin flowering in mid-spring they can continue to bloom sporadically through the summer. Following flowering, it produces reddish-orange fruits that are loved by wildlife such as a variety of songbirds, turkey, towhees, vireos, quail, blue jays, and the Northern Flicker. The bark is smooth and silvery-gray and very attractive in the winter landscape. Throughout the year this magnolia enhances the landscape with its many beautiful features.

Mona Bawgus is a certified master gardener. Write to her c/o Rutgers Cooper-ative Extension, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. Email: