Interesting Local Botanical History Of The Sweet Bay Magnolia flower Submitted By Dave Marsh

For the entire 14 page pdf click here

Sweet Bay

Dave Marsh submits-


Here is a picture of a Sweet Bay Magnolia flower on a tree in my yard.

The Sweet Bay is an  interesting plant/tree .


Magnolia virginiana in Massachusetts

The sweet bay magnolia swamp in Gloucester, Massachusetts has
been a botanical shrine since its discovery in 1806 Early New England
naturalists and botanists of all types, from Henry David
Thoreau to Asa Gray, made pilgrimages to the site of this northernmost
colony of Magnolia virginiana L.* (fig. 1). The local residents of
Gloucester were so impressed with a “southern” plant growing this far
north that they changed the name of the Kettle Cove section of the
town to Magnolia in the mid-1800s. It is probably no coincidence that
this name change occurred at the same time the area was starting up
its tourist trade.
In addition to its isolation, the Gloucester Magnolia population was
remarkable for having escaped notice until 1806 in an area that was
settled in 1623. This fact has led at least one author to speculate that
the colony was not wild but escaped from a cultivated plant (Anonymous,
1889). However, the overwhelming consensus of earlier
botanists is that the population is, in fact, native. Whatever its origin,
the swamp remains today the unique and mysterious place it has been
for almost 200 years.
Very little has been written about the magnolia swamp in recent
years. The latest, and best, article about it was written by Dr George
Kennedy, and appeared in 1916 in Rhodora, the journal of the New

England Botanical Club. Dr. Kennedy summarized the history of the
stand, and cleared up the confusion about who discovered it by publishing
a letter he found, written by the Honorable Theophilus Parsons to
the Reverend Manassah Cutler in 1806. The letter captures the emotion
of the moment of discovery:
Reverend and Dear Sir:
In niding through the woods in Gloucester, that are between
Kettle Cove and Fresh Water Cove I discovered a
flower to me quite new and unexpected in our forests. This
was last Tuesday week [July 22, 1806]. A shower approaching
prevented my leaving the carriage for examination, but
on my return, on Friday last, I collected several of the
flowers, in different stages, with the branches and leaves,
and on inspection it is unquestionably the Magnolia glauca
Mr. Epes Sargent has traversed these woods for flowers and
not having discovered it, supposes it could not have been
there many years. It was unknown to the people of Gloucester
and Manchester until I showed it to them. I think you
have traversed the same woods herborizing. Did you discover
it? If not, how long has it been there? It grows in a
swamp on the western or left side of the road as you go from
Manchester to Gloucester, and before you come to a large
hill over which the road formerly passed. It is so near the
road as to be visible even to the careless eye of the traveler.
Supposing the knowledge of this flower, growing so far
north, might gratify you, I have made this hasty communication.
Your humble servant,
Theoph. Parsons
The existence of the magnolia swamp was first announced to the
general public in 1814 by Jacob Bigelow in the first edition of his
famous Plants of Boston:
The only species of this superb genus, that has been found
native in our climate. It attains the height of a dozen feet,
but is sometimes killed down to the roots by severe winters
… The bark is highly aromatic, and possesses medicinal
properties. It grows plentifully in a sheltered swamp at
Gloucester, Cape Ann, twenty five miles from Boston,
which is perhaps its most northern boundary. – June,
And on September 22, 1858, Henry David Thoreau visited the
swamp and wrote about it in his Journal:
Sept 22. A clear cold day, wind northwest
Leave Salem for the Cape on foot … We now kept the road
to Gloucester, leaving the shore a mile or more to the right,
wishing to see the magnolia swamp. This was perhaps
about a mile and a half beyond Kettle Cove. After passing
over a sort of height of land in the woods, we took a path to
the left, which within a few rods became a corduroy road in
the swamp. Within three or four rods on the west side of
this, and perhaps ten or fifteen from the highroad, was the
magnolia. It was two to seven or eight feet high, but distinguished
by its large and still fresh green leaves, which had
not begun to fall. I saw last year’s shoots which had died
down several feet, and probably this will be the fate of most
which has grown this year. The swamp was an ordinary
one, not so wet but we got about very well. The bushes of
this swamp were not generally more than six feet high.
There was another locality the other side of the road.
Clouds of doubt concerning the survival of the swamp started to
gather in 1875, in A Report on the Trees and Shrubs Growing Naturally
In the Forests of Massachusetts by George B. Emerson. He noted
“scores” of trees broken down in a single season by people who sold
the flowers in Boston and Salem. By 1889, the situation had deteriorated
to the point that J. G. Jack, the dendrologist at the Arnold
Arboretum wrote:
So eagerly have the flowers been sought for by collectors,
and especially by those who wished to make money out of
the sale of both plants and flowers, that there has been
some apprehension that the day would soon come when the
’ Magnolia could only be classed in New England floras as
one of the indigenous plants of the past.
But some good news also appeared in this article, for he goes on to
say, “The hope is now entertained, however, that the owners of the
woods where it occurs, appreciating its rarity and interest, will take
care that its existence, in a wild state, may be perpetuated.” And
indeed it was, for in that same year, 1889, Mr. Samuel E. Sawyer, the
owner of the swamp, set up a trust fund, to be administered by a board
of trustees, to manage the land. He chose to call it “Ravenswood Park”
and instructed that it be left open for and made accessible to the
general public.

This great display of generosity, however, did not stem the tide of
destruction. Dr. Kennedy in his Rhodora article quotes a letter from
C. E. Faxon, the illustrator at the Arnold Arboretum, to a Mr. Walter
Deane, which shows the condition of the swamp in the summer of

* The next nearest population of M. U1rg1722a11Q is growing 150 miles to the
south on the eastern shore of Long Island, New York (Little, 1971).



Figure 1 This drawing of Magnolia virgimana appeared on 1849 in Asa Gray’s Genera
Plantarum (p! 23), with the caption “a branch in flower of the Northern variety,from
Gloucester, Massachusetts, of the natural size”


An unusualty old, taU, multi-stemmed specimen of Magnolia virgimana growing
in the old C. S Sargent estate in Brookline, Massachusetts The tree is 10 meters tall
Photograph by P Del Tredici.


For the entire 14 page pdf click here


2 thoughts on “Interesting Local Botanical History Of The Sweet Bay Magnolia flower Submitted By Dave Marsh

  1. Well researched article by Peter Del Tredici, which I read when researching my book. “Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities ~ Notes from a Gloucester Garden” provides information on how you too can grow Sweetbay successfully in our region. Readers can also see a gorgeous example of our native Sweetbay growing at the Gloucester HarborWalk gardens in the center of the upper half of I4-C2, where it has its own granite marker. It too, is currently in bloom. M. virginiana is also a caterpillar food plant for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies and the stunning Cecropia moth!


    1. I had two magnolias in my yard in E.Gloucester and my neighbor had two. Now, I’m living in S.Carolina and the area is full of them.
      A magnificent tree wherever they are found.


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