From amid the deep shiny green of broad, Camellia-like leaves, a heady fragrance drifts on the humid air of summer. Follow the scent to find nestled in the foliage, creamy white, exotic blossoms, fully 3" across, each with a ring of golden yellow stamens encircling the flower's center. Are these the blooms of a rare Camellia from Japan or perhaps some fabulous ornamental tea from India? No indeed, the alluring beauty of these flowers belongs to a southeastern U.S. native, Gordonia lasianthus, the Loblolly Bay of Coastal Plain and Piedmont.
Loblolly Bay is often found growing with Sweetbay, Magnolia virginiana, in the moist soils of bays and swamp edges throughout the Coastal Plain and up into the Piedmont of southern states. It is a member of the Tea family, making it a close cousin of the fascinating Franklinia alatamaha which was first discovered in the late 1700's along the banks of Georgia's Altamaha river and collected there by the famous American plantsman John Bartram for his own garden. The fascinating thing about Franklinia is that it has not been seen in the wild since 1790 but is successfully carried on in cultivation as a rare and lovely garden plant. Because of the similarities between Franklinia's beautiful flowers and those of Gordonia's, Franklinia was once included in the genus Gordonia. It is sometimes referred to as the "Lost Gordonia" but Franklinia is deciduous while Gordonia is evergreen and other differences between the two eventually restored Franklinia to its own genus by taxonomists. Perhaps the most well-known garden members of the Tea family are the Camellias which are all native to Asia. Gordonia lasianthus, the Loblolly Bay, is a special plant that brings the exotic beauty of Camellias to American landscapes with its own native garb.
Loblolly Bay is a broad-leaved evergreen tree, reaching 30 to 40 feet in cultivation but sometimes attaining greater height in the wild. An, open, somewhat gangling habit when young develops into a pyramidal, more dense appearance at maturity. Foliage is a very rich green (similar to evergreen Magnolias) which creates a beautiful setting for the large, white flowers and their golden centers. Flowers open in summer, one at a time in each of the clusters of several buds which are borne in the leaf axils (the leaf axil is the 'joint' where a leaf meets the branch). Flowers mature to tannish, dry capsules which split open in the fall. Once used to tan leather, the bark of Loblolly Bay is dark gray and becomes attractively fissured as the tree ages (a distinguishing character from the smooth bark of Franklinia).
Loblolly Bay is native to wet, acid areas and while it also prefers moist and acidic landscape conditions, in cultivation it requires a well-drained site. Attempts to plant Loblolly Bay in "swamp" conditions created by severely compacted clays in housing developments will probably kill this plant (or any non-aquatic plant for that matter). Wet areas in the wild are usually wet only during times when the plants growing in them are dormant and temperatures are cool and so require little oxygen or nutrients to survive. Planting in permanently wet areas, or areas that are repeatedly drowned during the hot growing season is asking too much of their native tolerances for periodic flooding and wet feet while they are quiescent. Nonetheless, Loblolly Bay is not as demanding as it sounds and, given the appropriate site considerations, will perform well in the hot, wet summers of its native southeast. Full sun or partial shade will give good growth with best flowering found in full sun but best winter protection found in partial shade. Loblolly Bay is hardy through the Coastal Plain and into the Central Piedmont of the southeast but will not be fully hardy in mountainous areas or north into Virginia.
There are no special cultivars or selections of Loblolly Bay readily available but the native species can be found at specialty nurseries, especially those focusing on native plants. Its relatively easy to propagate from seed or cuttings. Summer softwood cuttings root readily when rooted under mist, even without rooting promoter. Seed can be collected by harvesting the pods before they split open. Pods contain upwards of 100 tiny seeds which must be extricated, soaked in lukewarm water for two days, air-dried and sown in a light medium for germination (which can take up to 2 months).
At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), this native tree greets summer visitors from beside the White Garden's pool with exotic charm. The Loblolly Bay is an example of just how magnificent our native flora can be. Consider planting this special tree to entice its wild, native beauty into your own garden.