Northern bayberry fruits are the source of a fragrant wax used to make candles. They are also a good wintertime source of food for birds and other wildlife.
Northern bayberry can be a smooth rounded shrub with dense branching and foliage, or a large irregular shrub with open branching. The leaves are semi-evergreen, sometimes evergreen in mild winters. Getting up to 9 ft (3 m) in height and just as wide or even wider, northern bayberry suckers freely from rhizomes and in a few years a single plant can turn into a fair sized thicket. The alternate, obovate leaves are 1.5-3 in (4-8 cm) long, the margins usually with a few shallow teeth towards the tip. The leaves are leathery, shiny dark green and pleasantly fragrant when bruised. Use a hand lens to see the tiny resin dots that contain the fragrance on the underside of the leaves. Bayberry is usually dioecious, but occasionally male and female flowers are on the same plant. Male flowers are small yellowish green catkins appearing before the leaves in spring. Pollination is by wind. Female plants then produce fruits that are small round drupes, ¼ in (63 mm) in diameter. These are encrusted with a fragrant grayish white wax-like coating. The drupes, containing a single seed, are borne in great abundance and persist on the shrub through the winter.
Location Myrica pennsylvanica is native to northeastern North America, mostly on the Coastal Plain from Newfoundland south to North Carolina. Bayberry is usually an important component of the coastal dune vegetation along the Atlantic Coast, but it also grows in moist woods, often near streams or lakes. Behind the dunes of the Atlantic, bayberry is constantly pruned by wind and sand and grows in a smooth and rounded thicket, often less than 3 ft (1 m) high. Further inland in the moist woods, it’s an irregular, suckering shrub to 9 ft (3 m) tall.
Culture Light: Bayberry thrives in partial shade to full sun. Moisture: Northern bayberry grows best in moist soils, but established plants can tolerate extended periods of drought. The shrub is considered to be drought tolerant. After all, it grows naturally on sand dunes.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 7. Propagation:
Young, fast growing tip shoots can be rooted in moist soil. Branches can be layered by burying in the soil. Suckers from rhizomes off the main root can be dug up and replanted. Bayberry drupes can be planted whole after the wax coating has been removed. Remove the wax by rubbing the dry drupes against a screen. If you want to store seeds, the wax coating should be left on. Plant the drupes in fall for germination the following spring. Seeds that have been stored need to be dewaxed and prechilled for 30-90 days before sowing.
Northern bayberry shrub, seen here in late autumn at the Boone Country (Kentucky) Arboretum, is easy to propagate, grow and maintain even in poor, infertile soils. This species is also tolerant of salt and beach-front locations.
Bayberry fixes nitrogen like a legume, and so can thrive in infertile, nutrient poor soils where other shrubs would need fertilizing. It grows well in dry sandy or wet clayey soils and tolerates seaside conditions, including salt spray and occasional inundation with salt water. Bayberry is ideal for planting along roads where salt is used for deicing, and is one of just a few shrubs that will thrive around beach-front homes. This is an unusually trouble free shrub that can take care of itself.
Bayberry is used in borders, informal hedges or as a screen, and often planted along foundations. The crisp, bright green foliage of bayberry looks good in masses, and since bayberries are dioecious, you want to have several plants anyway. The grayish waxy fruits that persist until spring, often completely covering the branches, provide winter interest.
Bayberry is used for erosion control and to stabilize roadside banks. It is often used to revegetate disturbed soils such as abandoned mines. The nitrogen-fixing bayberry plants add significant nitrogen to the soil that is then available for other plants. Bayberry is thus considered a "keystone species" because it accelerates plant succession by fertilizing the soil. Bayberry is planted on coastal dunes for stabilization, erosion control and fertilization. Studies have shown that bayberry plantings improve the growth of other coastal dune species such as seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens).
The berries are eaten by many kinds of birds, and in severe winters they can be life-saving. Birds digest the wax and outer coating of the seeds, and the actual seeds pass through unharmed.
Foliage from bayberry is said to repel fleas and other insects, and leafy branches are sometimes placed in closets or drawers. Foundation plantings are supposed to keep fleas away from the house.
The wax that covers the berries can be made into candles, or more commonly, mixed with paraffin, bee’s wax or tallow to make scented candles. The essential oil extracted from the wax is used to flavor many things including soaps, cleansers and aroma products.
Native Americans made a tea from the leaves for use in the treatment of fever and as an emetic. The tea was also used externally as a wash for itchy skin.
You can extract your own bayberry wax for candles. Bayberry candles are long burning and brittle, but they don’t smoke when extinguished, and of course they emit a pleasant fragrance. Strip the berries off the branches and heat to near boiling in a pot of water. Let the water cool, then lift the hardened wax off the surface. Warm the wax in a clean container until it melts, then strain it through cheese cloth. You can get about a pound ( 453 g) of pure wax from 5-8 lbs (2.6-3.6 kg) of berries. The wax can then by mixed with bee’s wax or paraffin or used in its pure form to make bayberry candles. You’ll need a candle mold and wicks, available from arts and crafts dealers to complete the process.
High doses of the essential oils extracted from bayberry are said to be toxic.