University of Florida Extension ServiceUF/IFAS Okeechobee County Extension Service

458 Highway 98 North

Okeechobee, FL 34972-2578

Phone: (863) 763-6469

E- mail:

 July 24, 2008

Quick Links:  Loblolly Bay   Swamp Bay    Sweetbay Magnolia   References    Redbay Wilt Map

Feature Article – for release week of July 27, 2008

Dan Culbert - Extension Horticulture Agent

Three Bays for Florida Yards


The other day I noticed an attractive Florida native tree. High up in this tree were many beautiful white flowers.  They remind me of a column that I’ve wanted to write for some time on this attractive native tree.  And it gives me a chance to highlight some other trees that may be confused with this “tree-mendous” choice for Florida Yards.


Okeechobee Bay Tree


What's the pretty tree back there in the woods?  


It's a Bay Tree - the subject of this week's Florida Yard's Column! 


Photo: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

Laurel BayThe Laurel Bay, Lauris nobilis is a native of Southern Europe. It provides the "bay leaves" used in seasoning stews and sauces.  It also is the source of leaves worn by Greek Olympians on their heads. Graphic: 


The Loblolly Bay, Swamp Bay, and Sweet Bay are all Florida native.  Despite their names, they are not related to each other, but have the same shaped leaves.  The name ‘Bay tree’ comes from the spicy Laurel Bay, Lauris nobilis. This is a Mediterranean native, rarely found here, but is the source of Bay leaf seasoning and the traditional victory headgear for Greek Olympians.



Loblolly Bay  


The tree with the the pretty white flowers is called Loblolly Bay or Sweet Bay.  Botanists call it Gordonia lasianthus.  This tree is usually single-trunked and can grow to 35-60 feet tall. With glossy, dark green leaves with light grey undersides, add a little wind and it will give a two-toned effect.  Although evergreen, some leaves turn a brilliant scarlet color in the fall, adding to its color.



Loblolly Bay is a member of the Tea Family.  It will have flowers in midsummer.  Photo: above:  Bill Eggers


Loblolly Bays are found in sloughs and other areas of wet soil found in the Okeechobee area. Photo right: Dan Culbert


A nice feature about this native is the single white flowers that dot the canopy in mid summer. They are 2-3 inches in size with five petals. The inside of the cup-shaped flowers are packed with lots of yellow pollen-covered stamens.  Loblolly Bay produces small capsule-shaped berries that are rarely noticed.


Loblolly Bay is well-suited to low-maintenance landscapes. They have shallow roots and like partial shade with moist soil, but can tolerate full sun only if kept moist.  In the wild, look for them in wet sites along with maples, cypress and pines.  Form personal experience I know they don’t work in dry sandy soils or if exposed to salty conditions.



Swamp Bay


The Swamp Bay (Persea palustris) is a member of the Laurel family, which  includes  Avocado (P. americana) and Sassafras (S. albidum).  Other Florida natives that don’t grow in Okeechobee but may be confused with Swamp Bay are the Red Bay/Bay Oak (P. borbonia) and the Silk Bay (P.humilis).  At first glance all these may look like a live oak with leaning growth and red-brown deeply furrowed bark.


Swamp Bay leaves, flowers, and galls

Swamp Bay trees have small inconspicuous flowers in early spring.  Psyllid insects form galls on leaves which also help to identify this wetland tree. Photo: Fred Nation

Swamp Bay berry

Fruit of the Swamp Bay are favored by birds and other wildlife. Note also that the stems of this bay species are often covered with red-brown hairs.  Photo: (c) Alice B. Russell,NCSU  

Swamp Bay Tree

Mature Swamp Bay tree.  Photo: Va. Tech


The Swamp Bay grows to 30-40 tall with a foot-wide trunk but is often shorter in open areas. Often found in wetland thickets and swamps, it can be planted where soils are moist and where natural landscapes are desired.  It will not grow in salty conditions, unlike the so-called Bay oak, which does just fine in coastal areas. 

The evergreen leaves are glossy, leathery, medium green, and 4-6 inches long.  Crushed leaves give off a spicy fragrance like the European bay and can be used for flavoring stews and spaghetti sauce.

Rusty red fuzz often covers the bottom side of the leaves, especially along the veins, and the fuzzy young twigs also help identify this tree.  Leaves may have swollen deformations (galls) caused by tiny insects called psyllids. These galls are unsightly, but do not harm the plant.

In spring small flower clusters appear on long stalks. They can mature into small lustrous blue-black berries with a seedy pit.  These ˝ inch sized berries ripen in fall and are enjoyed by birds and other critters.  In the landscape, keep this tree away from sidewalks and driveways to avoid getting bird surprises on windshields or pavement.  Another feature that makes this an important wildlife plant is that some Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars eat Swamp Bay leaves. 

Recently Redbay trees have been attacked by a fungus (Ophiostoma sp.) carried by the Redbay Ambrosia Beetle (Xyleborus glabratus), introduced from Asia.  Redbay wilt  is spreading rapidly in coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.  It is feared that Swamp Bay may also be affected by this disease because other laurel family trees may be susceptible.  Moving infected firewood seems to be a major way to spread this disease.  [See FDACS press release on moving firewood!]

Sweetbay Magnolia 

Our last bay for the day is the Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), a lesser know cousin of the well known Southern Magnolia (M. grandifolia). It is a smaller version of the Southern Magnolia, with smaller fragrant flowers.  Cone-like seed capsules with hanging red berries will be produced on this tree.


Sweetbay Magnolia flower

The late springtime flowers of the Sweetbay Magnolia are a delight to the eye in both woods and the Florida Yard. Photo: Rodger Hamner

Sweetbay can work well as urban  trees where there is little space but sufficient moisture.  Photo: © Steve Baskauf, 2002-2005

Sweetbay Magnolia Fruit & seed

In fall and winter, look fro a cone-like capsule with hanging red seed to identify the Sweetbay Magnolia. Photo: Larry Korhnak, UF/IFAS


A major difference is that the Sweetbay Magnolia tends to be “semi-evergreen” – this means it will lose a lot of its leaves in the fall, but some will hang on in midwinter. Sweetbay can glimmer in the wind due to the whitish-green undersides of the leaves. They are very noticeable in water-logged woodlands.


This is another important wildlife tree, as deer and cattle frequently browse on the leaves and twigs.  The fruits provide a good food source many small mammals and wild birds.  They resprout from natural fires and can form thickets in natural areas.


Because of its reduced size, Sweetbay Magnolia fits into planting sites next to buildings, in narrow alleys or in other urban areas with limited horizontal space.   Its flood and drought tolerance can make it make it a good candidate for urban use.   A few improved cultivars of this tree have been selected; ‘Henry Hicks’ is evergreen and ‘Havener’ has larger flower petals.  Here's another called Satellite.


Scale insects sometimes infest foliage and twigs, particularly on dry sites, and lead to sooty mold.  Leaf spots occasionally occur on the foliage but are of little concern.

I’ve placed photos of these Bay and more information on our Okeechobee web page,  If you need additional information on these “Bay trees”, please email us at or call us at 863-763-6469.  Local residents can stop by our office at 458 Hwy 98 North in Okeechobee, and visit our Okeechobee County Master Gardeners from 1 to 3 PM on Tuesday afternoons.  GO GATORS!     


Trade  names, where used, are given for the purpose of providing specific information. They do not constitute an endorsement or guarantee of products named, nor does it imply criticism of products not named. The Florida Cooperative Extension Service - Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer authorized to provide research, educational information, and other services to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap, or national origin.  Florida Cooperative Extension Service / IFAS / University of Florida.  Larry A.  Arrington, Dean. Last update: 07/29/2008.  This page is maintained by Dan Culbert  Hit Counter


Cerulean, Susan. An Undefended Buffet: The Unnecessary Extinction of the Redbay, a Defining Southern Tree.   In: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments, Vol. 22:  summer/fall 2008.  © The Nature Conservancy.

Gillman, E. & Watson, D.  Loblolly-Bay Gordonia lasianthus [ST-283]. Gainesville : UF/IFAS Extension Service, November 1993.

Ibid.  Redbay Persea borbonia [ST-436]. Gainesville : UF/IFAS Extension Service,  October 1994

Ibid. Sweetbay Magnolia  Magnolia virginiana [ST-384]. UF/IFAS Extension Service, October 1994.

Hall, Donald.  Red bay psyllid (Featured Creature Bulletin) [EENY-438].  UF/IFAS Extension Service, June, 2008.

The Institute for Regional Conservation.  Natives for Your Neighborhood (website).  Miami, 2008. Plant List;  Specific plants:  Swamp Bay , Sweet Bay  Red Bay   Silk Bay

Korhnak, Larry.  Loblolly bay, Gordonia lasianthus ( Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Website).  Gainesville :  UF School of Forest Resources & Conservation, 2008.

Ibid. Sweetbay magnolia  (Magnolia virginiana) ( Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Website).  Gainesville :  UF School of Forest Resources & Conservation, 2008.  

Laurel Wilt Website.  Atlanta: USDA Forest Service, Forest Health Protection, July 2008. 

Mayfield A. & Thomas, The Redbay Ambrosia Beetle (Pest Alert). Tallahassee: FDACS Division of Plant Industry, July 2006.    Laurel wilt pest leaflet, Update, April 2008 

Red bay, Carolina bay, Persea borbonia var.borbonia.  UF/IFAS Center of Aquatic Plants, 2005.


Redbay Wilt is now known in the following locations:

John & William Bartram American Botanists stamp, with Franklinia (USA 33). 2002 US Longleaf Pine Forest Stamps, showing Sweet Bay Magnolia Fiji Avocado stamp