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Medicinal uses and benefits of magnolia trees

Medicinal Uses of Magnolia

medicinal plants Feb 18, 2024

By Matthew Hunter

   The magnolia tree is a plant nearly every Southerner is familiar with, at least by name, yet few are aware that it’s a genus with numerous medicinal benefits. The medicinal uses of magnolia trees are well documented and widespread throughout the world, yet they are seldom ever spoken of or written about in modern American herbalism, despite the tree’s well known reputation in the 1800’s(and its clinical use right up into the current day in other parts of the world).

   One of the things that amazed me the most as I undertook this study is how similar the uses of magnolia trees are in different parts of the world. Cultures with different languages, that are situated thousands of miles apart, have developed nearly identical uses for the tree, with medical traditions often stretching back hundreds of years.

   In this article we’re going to look at some of the primary medicinal uses of magnolia trees, learn how to identify the trees, and detail exactly how to prepare them into a medicine!

Identification and Range

   Scientifically, magnolia trees are in the genus Magnolia(that should be easy to remember, right?). Worldwide there are about 210 species of Magnolia, depending on who’s counting, and many of them are identified and used similarly.

   In the U.S there are 8 native species of magnolia, and all of them can be found in the Southeast. By far the most common species used in landscaping, and the one most of us picture when we think of magnolias, is the Southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora. Southern magnolia is native to the Coastal Plain(southern coastal states), but is commonly planted outside its native range. It has large, evergreen leaves with copper, fuzzy undersides and big white flowers. It’s the state flower of Louisiana, and both the state tree and state flower of Mississippi.

   Unfortunately, Southern magnolia is generally considered to be the weakest of our 8 native species, medicinally speaking, but if it’s all you’re able to find for now, give it a try anyway!

   The next Coastal Plain species that readers in the lower Southern states will want to look out for is sweet bay magnolia(Magnolia virginiana, historically known as M. glauca). Often known simply as “sweet bay” due to its resemblance to bay trees, sweet bay magnolia is often regarded as the strongest of the American magnolias, medicinally speaking.

Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). Note the resemblance to bay leaves.

   Sweet bay magnolia is identified by its smooth, gray bark, white leaf undersides(see picture), and aromatic leaves. I consider it a “clumping” tree, which means that it usually has multiple trunks instead of just one. It’s a semi-evergreen or “tardy deciduous” tree, meaning that its yearly leaf drop depends on the weather conditions and where it’s growing. In southern parts of its range it’s evergreen year-round, but in northern parts of its range it drops its leaves late. Or, if winter is mild, it may not drop its leaves at all.

   Sweet bay magnolia is often found growing in moist areas next to water, and could easily be confused with true wild bay(Persea sp.), which can sometimes be found growing nearby.

Closeup of sweet bay leaves showing their white undersides.

On windy days the white undersides of sweet bay leaves can be seen from a distance.

The terminal leaf buds of sweet bay magnolia and actual wild bay. If you look very closely at the end of each branch you’ll see that the leaf buds of the two trees are shaped differently. This is one of the most reliable ways to tell them apart in the absence of flowers and seeds.

Sweet bay magnolia has smooth, gray bark and often grow together in "clumps".

   The next most widespread species in the U.S. is the cucumber magnolia, often just known by the name cucumber tree(Magnolia acuminata). Cucumber magnolia grows from Louisiana northeast throughout the Appalachian mountains and into southern New York.

   Magnolia fraseri and Magnolia tripetala are worth mentioning as a side note because they’re both known locally as “umbrella tree”, so you may only be familiar with them by that name.

   Our rarest species of magnolia is Ashe’s magnolia(Magnolia ashei), which is endemic only to the Florida panhandle.

The distribution of cucumber magnolia(not pictured in this article).

   Lastly, a 9th species that you may find in landscaping is the saucer magnolia(Magnolia x soulangeana). A cross between the two Asian species M. liliiflora and M. denudata, saucer magnolia was hybridized by the French botanist Étienne Soulange-Bodin in 1820. It's an absolutely STUNNING species that produces hundreds of pink flowers in February before any of its leaves appear. It’s one of the first plants to flower in the late winter/early spring in the South, and it can be used medicinally similarly to other magnolias.

   The two magnolias pictured in this article are sweet bay magnolia(M. virginiana) and saucer magnolia.

Saucer magnolia(Magnolia x soulangeana) flowering in mid-February.

Closeup of the inside of a saucer magnolia flower. 

Medicinal Uses of Magnolia

   Magnolias have a wide array of medicinal applications and a long history of use stretching back thousands of years, and spanning throughout numerous countries around the globe. Virtually every part of the tree has been used for medicine including the bark, root bark, green immature seed cones, seeds, flower buds, and leaves, and it’s generally thought that all parts of the tree share the same medicinal uses.

   Every species listed in the identification section above is safe to use, and there are very few warnings or negative side effects reported from using magnolia. In larger amounts it’s reported to be a laxative, and taking larger doses on an empty stomach may produce a mild headache in some people(myself included).

   The following is a review of some of the most widespread, well known, and well documented uses of magnolia trees throughout the world.

The green, immature "seed cones" of magnolia are used for medicine and are ready around June in my area. Once they dry and turn brown they're no longer useful, but the bright red seeds that come out of them can also be ground up and used for medicine.

Arthritis Pain

   One of the most effective and widespread uses of magnolia is as an anti-inflammatory to treat arthritis pain(aka rheumatism). Listen to what American physician and botanist Jacob Bigelow had to say about sweet bay magnolia in his early 19th century work American Medical Botany:

“Chronic rheumatism is one of the diseases in which it exhibits most efficacy. Not only the bark, but the seeds and cones which are strongly imbued with the sensible qualities of the tree, are employed in tincture with very good success in this disease.”

   Next, here’s what famous Appilachian herbalist Tommie Bass said about cucumber tree(Magnolia acuminata) in Crellin and Philpott’s 1990 work, A Reference Guide to Medicinal Plants

“It’s a wonderful rheumatism medicine–the best–but you won’t find it in the medical list…More people call for the wild cucumber bark to treat rheumatism and arthritis than any other bark or herb I know of… We’ve had people that had to walk on canes or crutches that’s laid them down after using cucumber bark. Of course, there are some kinds of arthritis that it don’t help, but it doesn’t do them any harm. If you can’t get cucumber bark, the bark of magnolia or bay[sweet bay magnolia] is good… we know that the good Lord put these barks and berries and herbs here for our benefit if we just use them right.”1

Anxiety, Depression, Sleep, Stress, Mood, Epilepsy, and Other Ailments of the Brain

   It’s likely that the anxiolytic(anti-anxiety) and antidepressant properties of magnolia trees have been known in China for nearly 2,000 years, if not longer. Three different species of magnolia are mentioned in one of China’s oldest known medical texts, Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, which is thought to date back to at least 220 AD. 

   Today, various species of magnolia such as M. officinalis are clinically important in China and Japan for treating anxiety and depression, and scientific studies support their efficacy.2

   In Mexico, the Yoloxóchitl tree(Magnolia mexicana) is used to treat a wide range of nervous system ailments including, “anger, nerves, terror, sadness, and epileptic seizures”.3

   On the benefits of our native sweet bay magnolia(M. virginiana), I’ll again quote Tommie Bass from Crellin and Philpott’s above-mentioned text:

“If you’re nervous or fighting or something, you can make a good-tasting tea of the dried leaves and drink it. It will calm your nerves and help you sleep. I have made several gallons of bay-leaf tea for some men who say it’s the finest thing they can get for the nerves; they drink it like drinking water.”

   (As a side note, magnolia wouldn’t necessarily be my top choice as a sleep herb, but some people do find relief with it. For others it may work better as an addition to a sleep formula rather than all on its own.)

   Magnolia has been shown in studies to have the ability to elevate mood and reduce stress.4,5 These effects are often attributed to the constituents magnolol and honokiol, which have also been shown to have a wide array of neuroprotective effects on the brain, validating magnolia’s use as an anticonvulsant(seizure medication) in Mexico.6,7,8

   I consider it a great plant to know in the event of a supply chain emergency. I have a friend who suffers from seizures and has to take daily medication to prevent them. If the grid ever goes down, this would be my go-to plant to treat this issue.

   Magnolia has numerous other beneficial effects on the brain, but discussing them in detail is beyond the scope of this article. It may have application in treating tremors, Bell's Palsy, and Parkinson's Disease9, and is recommended for this purpose by experienced Southern herbalist Darryl Patton. There is more we could discuss, so in the future if you’re looking for an herb that can help with issues of the brain, think “magnolia”.

   Lastly, magnolia is thought to be an effective plant to help with nicotine dependence. If you’re trying to stop smoking or dipping, chewing on the bark or drinking it as a tea/tincture should help take the edge off(slightly). It should also be considered with any kind of dopamine-related addiction including overeating and sugar addiction. If you’re trying to start new healthy habits, magnolia could help give you a gentle push in the right direction!

Asthma, Allergies, Stuffy Nose, Sinus Headaches, and Respiratory Infections

   In the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico, the indigenous Zapotec people use the flowers of Magnolia yajlachii to treat asthma10. It was unclear during my research whether they use the open flowers or the unopened flower buds, however as I began to research the Chinese use of magnolia(who also use the flowers for asthma), I stumbled upon the term Flos Magnoliae which opened up an unexpected rabbit hole, one I was excited to dive head first into.

   Flos Magnoliae, known in China as “xin yi hua”, are the unopened flower buds of magnolia and are used to treat asthma, sinus congestion, and sinus headaches. They’re commonly used for colds and to alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms.

Note the large, fuzzy unopened flower bud of saucer magnolia(left).

"Xin yi hua", or magnolia flower buds, harvested from a saucer magnolia in my front yard.

   Scientific research has shown that constituents in magnolia, namely magnolol, act as mast cell stabilizers which is what gives this tree its antihistamine-like effects11.

   Both Native Americans and early American physicians alike recognized the usefulness of magnolia to treat coughs, colds, “chest problems”, and sinus congestion. The Cherokee used magnolia for “sinus troubles”12. The Choctaw and Houma used the leaves and twigs of sweet bay magnolia to treat colds13, and Americans used to put the bark in brandy as a cough medicine14. Talk about widespread use!

   There have also been at least two studies15,16 that suggest/report that constituents in magnolia work as a respiratory antiviral again common flu strains, including the one that we all heard about recently, that I can’t actually type out for fear that search engines will censor this article if I do(let the reader understand).

   On the topic of flowers, open magnolia flowers share some of the same properties as the unopened buds, but the stronger smell of the buds(and their well documented historical use) leads me to believe that they’re richer in active constituents than the mature flowers. That being said, it’s clear that multiple parts of the tree, not just the flower buds, have been used for sinus and chest congestion.

   Lastly, the flower petals of magnolia are edible and used in a variety of dishes in Asia, mostly as a condiment. They seem to have caught on more with foragers in the U.K. than here in the States. They have a pungent flavor, and one of the main ways they’re prepared is by pickling, believe it or not!

Other Uses: Fevers, Stomach Aches, Diarrhea, and as a Bitter Tonic

   One of the primary uses of magnolia throughout history has been to treat fever. At one time in the U.S. it was known as a backup alternative to treat malarial fevers(which we forget used to be a major problem in this country). 

   It’s known as a stimulating diaphoretic, bringing blood closer to the surface of the skin where heat can be more quickly dissipated(especially if drunk as a hot tea). Stimulating diaphoretics are often used for fevers where the person has chills and can’t seem to “get warm”.

   Another one of magnolia's main uses, and I’ll wrap it up here, is as a bitter tonic for the digestive tract. There are many, MANY reports of magnolia being used for things like stomach aches or cramps, diarrhea, indigestion, etc. This is likely due in part to its antispasmodic(reducing spasms) and anti-inflammatory properties.

Preparation and Recommended Dosage

   To make a tincture, I find a young shoot or small branch a little thicker than the diameter of a quarter and cut it off cleanly with a saw. After stripping the bark off with a knife, I chop it into coarse squares and put it all into a jar. If it's June I’ll look for the green seed cones and use those as well. Some people use the seeds, and I suppose they have to crush or blend them first.

   Whichever part you choose, put the fresh plant material in a jar and cover it to the top with 190 proof(95%) pure grain alcohol. Let the jar sit for 2-4 weeks, shaking daily, then strain it and bottle it up into a dropper bottle.

   You now have a magnolia tincture. I use 30-60 drops(or about 1-2 dropperfuls), 3 times per day for medicinal application. 60 drops sometimes gives me a very mild headache, especially if I take it on an empty stomach.

   To make tea, I never measure but just go by taste. Add about 4-6 coffee cups full of water to a pot, then a three-finger pinch of the chopped, dried bark and boil for 15 minutes. It’s a bitter plant, and a little bit goes a long way. If it’s too bitter just add a little less next time. You’ll learn after 1 or 2 times how much you prefer. The standard dosage is 3 cups per day to get the medicinal benefits.

The author strips bark from a magnolia limb.

Two "assistants" harvesting green seed cones from a clump of sweet bays.

A huge harvest of sweet bay magnolia bark and immature seed cones. It's always good to make extra to give away to friends or people who are hurting!

Georgia helps chop up bark for tincturing.

These two tinctures were made to compare the effects of open saucer magnolia flowers(left) with the unopened flower buds(right) to see if there is a significant difference. Results to be determined...

Works Cited

1. Crellin and Philpott’s 1990 work, A Reference Guide to Medicinal Plants

2. Poivre M, Duez P. Biological activity and toxicity of the Chinese herb Magnolia officinalis Rehder & E. Wilson (Houpo) and its constituents. J Zhejiang Univ Sci B. 2017 Mar.;18(3):194-214. doi: 10.1631/jzus.B1600299. PMID: 28271656; PMCID: PMC5365644.

3. Cuahua, Rogelio & Jimeno, David & Elizondo-Salas, A. Carolina. (2017). El Yoloxóchitl (Magnolia mexicana DC.), en la Sierra de Zongolica, Ver.: estudio poblacional y conocimiento tradicional. 10.13140/RG.2.2.27280.30725. 

4. Xu Q, Yi LT, Pan Y, Wang X, Li YC, Li JM, Wang CP, Kong LD. Antidepressant-like effects of the mixture of honokiol and magnolol from the barks of Magnolia officinalis in stressed rodents. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2008 Apr 1;32(3):715-25. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2007.11.020. Epub 2007 Nov 28. PMID: 18093712.

5. Talbott SM, Talbott JA, Pugh M. Effect of Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense (Relora®) on cortisol and psychological mood state in moderately stressed subjects. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Aug 7;10(1):37. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-10-37. PMID: 23924268; PMCID: PMC3750820.

6. Chen CR, Tan R, Qu WM, Wu Z, Wang Y, Urade Y, Huang ZL. Magnolol, a major bioactive constituent of the bark of Magnolia officinalis, exerts antiepileptic effects via the GABA/benzodiazepine receptor complex in mice. Br J Pharmacol. 2011 Nov;164(5):1534-46. doi: 10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01456.x. PMID: 21518336; PMCID: PMC3221106.

7. Martínez AL, Domínguez F, Orozco S, Chávez M, Salgado H, González M, González-Trujano ME. Neuropharmacological effects of an ethanol extract of the Magnolia dealbata Zucc. leaves in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2006 Jun 30;106(2):250-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2006.01.003. Epub 2006 Jan 25. PMID: 16442760.

8. Bastidas Ramírez BE, Navarro Ruíz N, Quezada Arellano JD, Ruíz Madrigal B, Villanueva Michel MT, Garzón P. Anticonvulsant effects of Magnolia grandiflora L. in the rat. J Ethnopharmacol. 1998 Jun;61(2):143-52. doi: 10.1016/s0378-8741(98)00028-2. PMID: 9683345.

9. Zhu S, Liu F, Zhang R, Xiong Z, Zhang Q, Hao L, Chen S. Neuroprotective Potency of Neolignans in Magnolia officinalis Cortex Against Brain Disorders. Front Pharmacol. 2022 Jun 16;13:857449. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2022.857449. PMID: 35784755; PMCID: PMC9244706.

10. Domínguez-Yescas, Reyna & Vázquez-García, José. (2019). Flower of the heart, Magnolia yajlachhi (subsect. Talauma, Magnoliaceae), a new species of ceremonial, medicinal, conservation and nurse tree relevance in the Zapotec culture, Sierra Norte de Oaxaca, Mexico. Phytotaxa. 393. 21–34. 10.11646/phytotaxa.393.1.2. 

11. Ikarashi Y, Yuzurihara M, Sakakibara I, Nakai Y, Hattori N, Maruyama Y. Effects of the extract of the bark of Magnolia obovata and its biphenolic constituents magnolol and honokiol on histamine release from peritoneal mast cells in rats. Planta Med. 2001 Nov;67(8):709-13. doi: 10.1055/s-2001-18354. PMID: 11731910.

12. Hamel, P.B. and Chiltoskey, M.U. 1975. Cherokee Plants and Their Uses — A 400 Year History. as cited in Austin, D.F. 2004. Florida Ethnobotany

13. Bushnell, D.I., Jr. 1909. The Choctaw of Bayou Lacomb, St.Tammany Parish, Louisiana. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of AMerican Ethnography Bulletin 48. As cited in Austin, D.F. 2004. Florida Ethnobotany

14. Millspaugh, C.F. 1892, American Medicinal Plants. As cited in Austin, D.F. 2004. Florida Ethnobotany

15. Salgado-Benvindo C, Leijs AA, Thaler M, Tas A, Arbiser JL, Snijder EJ, van Hemert MJ. Honokiol Inhibits SARS-CoV-2 Replication in Cell Culture at a Post-Entry Step. Microbiol Spectr. 2023 Jun 15;11(3):e0327322. doi: 10.1128/spectrum.03273-22. Epub 2023 May 4. PMID: 37212560; PMCID: PMC10269499.

16. Wu XN, Yu CH, Cai W, Hua J, Li SQ, Wang W. Protective effect of a polyphenolic rich extract from Magnolia officinalis bark on influenza virus-induced pneumonia in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2011 Mar 8;134(1):191-4. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2010.11.074. Epub 2010 Dec 10. PMID: 21146600.