I fell in love with Carolina bays a few decades back during a coastal ecology class. I’m talking about three tree species known as “Carolina bays,” not the geological/ecological entities where they live, which are also quite fascinating.
Most of the North Carolina inner coastal plain is flat, and before settlers drained it extensively, much of it was swampland covered by thick growths of mostly evergreen shrubs and trees that harbored abundant wildlife (slightly drier areas were covered by vast forests of Longleaf Pine). These thick growths of swampy vegetation were considered a hindrance by those who wanted to farm the land, which is why today you only find patches of this native ecotype, mostly in preserves that harbor bears and recently re-introduced red wolves, along with myriad birds and other creatures.
I think the settlers probably called these areas bays, because of the three species of small, evergreen trees that grew among the hollies and other vegetation characteristic of this ecotype. To the casual observer, they look vaguely alike, because they are all small trees, often shrubby in habit, and their leaves are evergreen and aromatic.
Cooks familiar with bay leaves may know they are leaves from the Bay Laurel (Laurel nobilis), a shrubby tree of the Mediterranean region. These aromatic leaves have been used to flavor food for thousands of years. Settlers of the NC coastal plain saw a similarity between the cooking bay they knew and three evergreen tree species of the swampy thickets, so all were named bays: Loblolly Bay (Gordonia lasianthus), Red Bay (Persea borbonia), and Sweet Bay (Magnolia virginiana).
If you crush leaves of these three trees, they smell sweetly spicy; each species smells slightly different, and all were used by the colonists to flavor food. Of the three species, Sweet Bay’s leave are the sweetest, which may be how it got its name. Although, the potently fragrant white flowers of this native magnolia may have also been responsible for that designation.
The natural range of this mostly evergreen (depends on the coldness of the winter) native magnolia extends to the lower, eastern Piedmont region. Twenty-two years ago when I realized part of my yard was a moist floodplain leading into a swamp, I decided to plant some bays. The Red Bay I planted is struggling to hang on; our recent drought years have been hard on it. The Sweet Bay, however, seems to be thriving. It is tall and skinny at about 25 feet high, and it disappears when all the floodplain trees wear their summer foliage.
Winter is when my Sweet Bay Magnolia shines. After I planted mine, I discovered a group of about four growing deeper in the swamp just off our property. These are clearly naturally occurring trees, which likely explains why the one I planted nearby is so happy. Yes, I laughed when I realized that Nature had beaten me to the punch.
My tree blooms in April, and because it’s so tall, I often forget to look for the flowers. But the seed cones are usually still visible by the time I remember to check on it.
However, in the winter landscape, I notice this tree every time I look out my window because of its leaves. The tops of the leaves are a nice deep green, but the undersides are pale silver. The gentlest of breezes lifts Sweet Bay’s leaves enough to show their metallic undersides. And when the barometric pressure changes, my Sweet Bay turns up all its leaves, sending a silver signal to warn me of an impending weather change.
If you’ve got a moist spot in your Piedmont yard, consider adding a Sweet Bay Magnolia. Horticulturalists have developed a number of cultivars that are more refined than the species. Some even have larger, more conspicuous flowers. All tolerate shade and wet roots, and all will flash their leafy silvery undersides at you when the winds make them dance.