Recently I had opportunity to recommend to someone a Sweet Bay tree. I was looking it up online in order to e-mail pictures when it dawned on me that there are actually four separate plants that use the common name "Sweet Bay."
I first learned of "Sweet Bay" in Dr. Wade Batson's renowned Spring Flora class at USC back in '79. We had visited a "Carolina Bay" site in the coastal plain. These Carolina Bay areas are rich in botanical diversity, and there I first came upon the "Bay" or "Loblolly Bay" or "Sweet Bay" tree. This has been the "Sweet Bay" tree in my head all these years.
Thus I have had some confusion since, as I said, there are in fact four different species of plants found in our area that may go by the name "Sweet Bay." And the most common one is not even the Sweet Bay of Carolina Bay fame.
The four kinds of "Sweet Bay" are:
1. Sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) (Magnolia family) - Swamp Bay, Laurel Magnolia - native (Check out the Duke and Wikipedia articles).
Many cultivars of this the most commonly planted Sweet Bay have been developed for gardens. It is a wonderful plant.
2. Loblolly Bay (Gordonia lasianthus) (Tea family) - Holly Bay, Black Laurel, Summer Camellia - native ( see the Duke see and Wikipedia articles.
This is the the Sweet Bay I first learned about in botany class. It is a beautiful and wonderfully fragrant native tree and one I wholeheartedly recommend for local gardeners.
(Photo from Flickr site of hdescopeland - photo and text posted 2 August 2009 revised 2 October 2010).
3. Swamp Bay (Persea palustris) (Laurel Family) - Swamp Redbay, Sweet Bay - native (note the Duke and USDA write ups).
This is a small tree native to the coastal plain and which I also learned of years ago, but had lumped together with the Loblolly Bay.
4. Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) - Bay Laurel, True Laurel, Sweet Laurel, Sweet Bay - this bay tree is native to the Mediterranean. See see Wikipedia and Blog articles).
This is the famous culinary "bay leaf" tree and the least common of the "Sweet Bays" in our area. We are at the northern end of its range but it is planted here and has escaped and become naturalized.
Hope you enjoyed this trip down Sweet Bay Lane.