Monday, June 24, 2013

Waxing poetic over the humble wax myrtle

Wax myrtle is an evergreen shrub with aromatic leaves

It’s easy to overlook a tree that is neither bold nor ablaze with blooms.  Although landscapers may incorporate such plants into commercial and residential designs, they rarely garner much attention or excitement.  Instead, they tend to blend in with the environment forming a backdrop to our everyday lives.  When a tree is plain, we pay it little heed.

That’s how it is with the Florida native Myrica cerifera commonly known as wax myrtle, southern bayberry or candleberry bush.  Few people give it much notice.  It’s just there, part of the environment.
On our property, although we didn’t plant them, wax myrtles hug the shoreline.  Along some sections, volunteer myrtles are so dense they’ve formed an impromptu thicket.   

This fast-growing, shrub-like evergreen may escape human notice but birds, butterflies and assorted small animals pay attention.  Wildlife seeks shelter in myrtle’s thickly packed branches and dark green foliage.  Clusters of tiny blue-silvery berries (drupes) that form along the branches are a favored source of food for many birds including wild turkeys, quails, tree swallows, bluebirds, thrashers and waterfowl.  The red-banded hairstreak butterfly deposits its eggs on dead myrtle leaves that have fallen to the ground.  When the larvae hatch, they crawl up to feed on the host plant’s live leaves.

Photo credit:  Jerry E. Butler, University of Florida

I can attest to wax myrtle’s popularity with wildlife.  When I’m out rowing or walking around the lake, I rarely pass a stand without hearing rustling noises and wondering who’s making them.  Are the sounds coming from a rabbit burrowing into a myrtle’s leafy shelter or a nesting bird protecting its brood?  It could easily be either.  As I go by, I often see catbirds and cardinals flying to and from the bushy plants and spider webs adorn its branches.  Every now and then my presence disturbs a rabbit that will scamper away or an armadillo that ambles out from beneath the low-growing foliage.

In addition to providing food and shelter for wildlife, wax myrtles also supply food and protection for people.  If you have ever added dried bayberry leaves to flavor soup, you are using the leaves from either the wax myrtle tree or its northern cousin, Myrica pensylvanica, better known as the bayberry bush.  The spicy scent from all myrtle/bayberry trees also acts as a repellent to insects and deer. 

Before relocating to the Sunshine State in 1987, I spent 17 years on Cape Cod where candles made from the berries of Myrica pensylvanica (the northern bayberry) are part of Cape Cod history and popular culture.  Long before Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, Native Americans gathered the bush’s waxy, aromatic berries to make candles.  Native people shared their knowledge with the early settlers who despite the time-consuming, labor-intensive work (four pounds of berries yield just a pound of wax) appreciated the smokeless, soft white light the candles provided. 

The Southern wax myrtle also produces berries usable for candle making but without the historic significance of its New England counterpart.  Although I’ve never tried to dip wicks in bayberry wax, I have crushed the tiny orbs of wax myrtle berries between my fingers to release their aromatic scent. 

The humble wax myrtle may be a plain-Jane plant but its many attributes make it worthy of attention.

How to make bayberry candles  (Source: MotherEarthLiving)
The discovery of bayberry bushes in coastal areas permitted housewives to replace these fourth-rate sources of illumination with candles that produced a pleasant fragrance along with improved lighting. In autumn, just after the first heavy frost, settlers gathered their baskets and set out to harvest bushels of ripe bayberries, each one measuring 1/8 inch across or less. They heated rainwater to scalding, then dumped in the fruit. As the berries’ waxy coating floated to the surface, they skimmed off the wax and reboiled it to get rid of impurities. The kettle was kept by the fire, where the wax stayed melted. A housewife made wicks from recycled yarns or threads of flax or hemp. As she made her candles in pairs (sometimes two or three at a time), she would need a wick more than twice as long as the finished candle. Looping it over a hardwood rod, she lowered it into the wax, then lifted it out to cool and harden. She repeated the dipping and lifting until the candles were the desired size. If she could afford a metal candle mold, the production was speeded up significantly.

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