Horticultural Highlight: Wax myrtle
In this series, the staff of Duke Gardens highlights plants you’ll find within our 55-acre living collection. This week, marketing and communications assistant Katherine Hale features a sweetly scented native shrub with a long history of human use.
Botanical name: Morella (Myrica) cerifera
Common name: Southern wax myrtle, bayberry
Family name: Myricaceae (Wax Myrtle Family)
Native range: Southeastern North America
Location in Duke Gardens: Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden
USDA Hardiness Zones: 7-11
If you love candles, you’re probably familiar with the color and scent of bayberry, a popular decoration in old-fashioned Christmas displays. These days, most commercially available “bayberry” candles are made with paraffin and other artificial ingredients, but for hundreds of years, wild bayberries—the unusual fruits of the southern wax myrtle—were the only source of the distinctive wax used to manufacture them.
As their common name suggests, bayberries are native to the coastal plains, growing in dense thickets from Maryland through Texas—the southern counterpart to the northern bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica), which runs up the coast of New England. Both species earned the moniker “wax myrtle” from the thousands of tiny fruits coated with blueish wax that cling tightly to the branches of female trees, which can be boiled and strained to create a burnable wax for candle-making. You can get a sample of what pure bayberry candles are like by crushing the leaves, which are lined with tiny yellow resin glands containing the same chemicals responsible for the distinctive fragrance.
Botanically, wax myrtles are members of the Myricaceae, or wax myrtle family, and are thus unrelated to most of the other species commonly known as myrtles, such as the crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia spp.) and the true myrtle (Myrtus communis). For such a small family, the Myricaceae is the source of much controversy in plant taxonomy, with many systematists calling it Myrica cerifera and others splitting it into the related genus Morella. You’ll find it answering to one or both names in plant nurseries or online.
With a decline in the need for candles, bayberry has found new life as a highly adaptable native evergreen hedge that's resistant to deer and the rigors of urban life. It’s also an important food source for wild birds, including the eponymous myrtle warblers (Setophaga coronata coronata), which rely heavily on the berries during the winter months. Because male and female flowers are found on separate shrubs, it’s important to plant more than one in order to ensure a bountiful harvest, unless you happen to have one of the rare exceptions that bears both kinds of flowers.
Photo by Sue Lannon.