By Julie Christensen
If you’ve got a tough landscaping situation, bayberry shrub (Myrica) might just be the solution. Bayberry is native to eastern North America and thrives along the rugged coastal areas of Maine. Hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 through 6, this shrub has a loose, open form and clusters of blue to gray berries that are covered with a pale waxy coating.
Bayberry shrubs slowly grow 6 to 10 feet tall and at least as wide. They works well in groupings, as informal shrubs, or as specimen plants. Bayberry shrubs can be pruned into more formal shapes. The aromatic leaves are deep green, glossy and thick. In some cases, they may be evergreen. The berries are deeply fragrant and were used by colonists to make candles, wax and soaps. The berries persist through the winter, providing food for any birds overwintering.
Bayberry shrubs tolerate almost any soil, including clay and sand, although they prefer a moist, slightly acidic, sandy soil. They suffer few disease problems and can tolerate drought, winter cold and flooding.
Growing Bayberry Shrubs
Plant bayberry shrubs from nursery plants or cuttings in early spring. Amend the soil with compost, but don’t add fertilizer. Space bayberry shrubs at least 4 to 6 feet apart, depending on the species. Mulch the soil with 2 inches of wood chips or bark to keep weeds down and conserve moisture. Water at least weekly during the first year as the roots become established. Once the plants mature, they rarely need watering except during very dry conditions.
Prune bayberries in the spring to remove any dead or diseased branches, as well as to control growth. Cut branches back to a healthy lateral bud. In general, bayberry shrubs rarely need fertilizer unless growth is slow. Avoid giving them excessive nitrogen fertilizer, which can make them more prone to disease.
Bayberry shrubs are dioecious, meaning that only female plants produce berries. Make sure you plant at least one male plant among your plantings.
Bayberry shrubs are cold-loving plants that don’t fare well in heat and humidity. The leaves may become chlorotic in very alkaline soil. Add peat moss or sulfur to alkaline soil and use an acidic fertilizer annually. The plants are generally disease- and pest-free, but they can be affected by leaf spots, root rots and stem rots. Treat leaf spots by removing dead and diseased material. Space the plants so air circulates freely and use drip systems instead of overhead sprinklers. In some cases, you might want to apply a fungicide labeled for use on bayberry shrubs. Root and stem rots often occur in heavy, poorly-draining soil. Although the plants tolerate occasional flooding, especially in native settings, they’ll grow better if the soil drains adequately. Add compost or manure to improve drainage or consider using raised beds in very wet areas.
Bayberry Plant Varieties
Of the genus Myrica, commonly known as bayberry shrub or wax myrtle, Northern bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica) is native to eastern North America and grows 10 feet tall. This was the plant traditionally harvested by early American settlers.
Bayberry shrubs make a care-free shrub for almost any garden setting, but the berries and branches have indoor ornamental value, as well. Boil ripe bayberry shrubs to release the wax, which rises to the top and can be skinned off. This wax can be used like beeswax to make candles. You’ll need a lot of berries, though. Four pounds of berries produces only one pound of wax. A more economical solution is to add a little bayberry wax or oil to beeswax. The candles will still be aromatic, but demand less work from you.
The berries and branches dry well and make a beautiful addition to wreaths, garlands and dried flower arrangements. Historically, the berries were used to treat a variety of ailments, including colds, flu and diarrhea.
For more information, visit the following links:
Bayberry—a Native Plant that Yields Fragrant Holiday Candles from Cape May.com
Northern Bayberry from the University of Maine Extension
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.