Southern Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera)

Bayberry, Candleberry, Dwarf Bayberry, Dwarf Wax-myrtle, Eastern Bayberry, Southern Bayberry, Southern Waxmyrtle, Southern Wax Myrtle, Tallow Shrub, Waxmyrtle, Wax Myrtle

Make the Myrica cerifera part of your landscape today. Why? The Wax Myrtle is an evergreen shrub that is an excellent addition to borders as a hedge and a fast-growing shrub. The other familiar name is the Southern Wax Myrtle, similar to the Northern Bayberry.

The main difference is it is a heat-loving species suitable to grow in warm climates.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Myrica cerifera is a small evergreen tree or large shrub native to North and Central America and the Caribbean. Its common names include southern wax myrtle, southern bayberry, candleberry, bayberry tree, and tallow shrub. It has uses in the garden and for candle making, as well as a medicinal plant.

Myrica cerifera is a small tree or large shrub, reaching up to 14m tall. It is adaptable to many habitats, growing naturally in wetlands, near rivers and streams, sand dunes, fields, hillsides, pine barrens, and in both coniferous and mixed-broadleaf forests. M. cerifera can weather coastal storms, long droughts, and tropical high temperatures.

The fruit is a source of food for many bird species, including the northern bobwhite quail and the wild turkey. In winter, the seeds are important foods for the Carolina wren and species of tree sparrow. To a point, M. cerifera will also provide habitat for the northern bobwhite quail. Birds’ digestive systems remove the wax from the fruit, a prerequisite for germination.

This plant’s roots possess root nodules, which harbor a symbiotic genus of the actinorhizal bacteria, Frankia which fixes nitrogen gas at a faster rate than do legumes.

In nature, it ranges from Central America, northward into the southeastern United States. Wax Myrtle can be successfully cultivated as far north as the New York City area and southern Ohio Valley. It also grows in Bermuda and the Caribbean. In terms of succession, M. cerifera is often one of the first plants to colonize an area.

  1. cerifera is an evergreen. The glandular leaves are long, have a leathery texture and serrated edges, and contain aromatic compounds. The plant is dioecious, with male and female flowers borne in catkins on separate plants. Male flowers have three or four stamens, and are surrounded by short bracts. The female flowers develop into fruit, which are globular and surrounded by a natural wax-like coating. The species flowers from late winter to spring, and bear fruit in late summer or fall. No endosperm is present on the seeds. M. cerifera can also reproduce clonally through runners.

This species occurs in two forms, but there is no clear dividing line between them, many intermediate forms occurring. Specimens in drier and sandier areas are shrub-like, have rhizomes and smaller leaves. Those growing in damper situations with richer soil are more tree-like with bigger leaves.

  1. cerifera has exhibited aggressive behavior in both native and non-native habitat. On the Virginia barrier islands within its native range, the shrub has been documented rapidly expanding into grasslands impacting ecosystem function and landscape-level resistance to disturbance. While climate change plays a large role in this, the mechanism responsible is the shrub’s ability to alter its own microclimate. On the other side of the US, in Hawai’i, M. cerifera’s ability to partner with nitrogen-fixing bacteria makes it a significant threat to native Hawai’ian forests.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

When choosing a spot to grow your plant, it can grow in poor soils from full sun to partial shade. For example, when you grow Myrica cerifera in full sun, the foliage is dense compared to wet or shady sites. Still, the shrubs tend to need 4 to 5 hours of direct sunlight.

Watering

Myrica cerifera needs constant moisture but should not become waterlogged. While it can grow in soil conditions ranging from dry to wet or shady sites, these plants might need constant moisture, but it is best to allow the soil to dry between watering.

Soil

Myrica cerifera can initially grow in medium to wet soils, but the soil drainage needs to be good. Whether grown in a container or on the ground, provide it with well-draining soil and some organic matter like vermiculite, perlite, or coco coir.

Fertilizing

The Myrica cerifera is a light feed but can benefit from a feed. Using a slow-release fertilizer for trees or shrubs, you can fertilize your shrub in spring. Preferably use one containing Iron or Sulfur. Or you can use organic plant food instead.

Planting Instructions

The fantastic thing about Wax Myrtle is that you can grow them in containers and ground. One thing is for sure the olive green leaves with berries will always smell like Bayberry candles close by.

Ground planting

When you live in South Florida near the coasts, these native shrubs work well for coastal planting with their salt tolerance. The only thing is this plant cannot tolerate cold winters.

  • Dig a hole about two to three times wider but not deeper than the root ball. Place some soil you removed into the hole and add some sand or topsoil if the ground feels hard.
  • Remove your Wax Myrtle, loosen the feeder roots, and set it in the planting hole with the top of the root ball a bit above ground level. Backfill the soil as needed and tamp it to remove the air pockets.
  • Then soak the soil when reaching halfway and continue to the top edge of the root ball. Preferably do not place soil on top of the root ball, as it will suffocate the roots.
  • Water again, allowing the soil to level in with the roots, and once done, you can water the planting area. Then apply some shredded wood mulch or pine straw around your planting area.

Container planting

The soil needs to be consistently moist for growing in a pot as houseplants but drains well.

  • Place some shade cloth at the bottom of the pot to prevent the drainage holes from clogging up. Then remove your indoor plant from the nursery container and loosen the feeder roots.
  • Pour some soil mixture at the bottom and set the root ball in the center as with planting in the ground. Backfill to the edge of the root ball and water until it flows from the drainage holes. Add more soil allowing your plant to settle and water again.
  • Then apply some sphagnum moss or wood chips to the soil surface or stone mulch.

Pruning

The native plants respond well to pruning as a small tree or hedge for shaping purposes. You can do light pruning to remove damaged or stray branches any time of the year. The same applies to shearing them as hedges.

We recommend ceasing pruning at least two months before the first frost date. Then, you can prune your native shrubs to reduce their size in late winter while dormant. For selective pruning, use a bypass hand pruner to remove the limbs and hedge trimmers for hedges.

For forming small trees, it helps to wait until your shrub is about four feet tall to start. We recommend starting at the base and removing the horizontal branches that grow from the trunk. You can remove the branches until the required height is reached.

Propagation

There are different methods to propagate your Southern Bayberry: softwood cuttings, semi-hardwood cuttings, and seeds. You can sow seeds outdoors in the fall or stratify them. The wood cuttings you need to take in summer, while root cuttings are taken in early winter.

The root-cutting length needs to be about three inches long. You can collect seeds and leave the sealing wax on for storage. But remove the wax before the stratification. Next, remove the coating using a solution of one t. lye and one-gallon water. Then store in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

The stratification days are up to 90 days at 34° to 41°, but you can also buy seeds commercially. Another notable thing is having your shrub grow berries; you will need a male plant, and female plants close together to pollinate female flowers in some species.

Pests and Diseases

While the wax-bearing plant is not susceptible to many pests and diseases, you must keep your eye on them like most other plants. Some concerns are leaf beetles known to feed on the foliage. Other concerns are leaf browning typically occurs in winter, and leaf anthracnose plus leaf mosaic.

The foliage turns to drab yellowish green, particularly the new growth. It will result in premature leaf drop.

III. Uses and Benefits 

Ornamental uses

Myrica cerifera finds use in gardening and horticulture. It has been commonly grown in American hardiness zones of 11 to 7. M. pensylvanica substitutes for M. cerifera in areas colder than zone 6. Since the species is adaptable, it will tolerate many conditions, although it has a need for frequent pruning. It can handle abuse from bad pruning, however. The species has at least four cultivars. Those dubbed Fairfax, Jamaica Road, and Don’s Dwarf differ from the “typical” specimen in habit and form. The latter two are also resistant to leaf spot. Var. pumila is a dwarf cultivar.

Medicinal uses

Bayberry root bark has a history of use in herbalism. The plant contains several organic compounds, including: triterpenes such as myricadiol, taraxerol, and taraxerone, as well as chemicals such as different flavonoids, tannins, resins, gums, and phenols. Myricadiol has a slight impact on levels of potassium and sodium, while a substance called myricitrin has antibiotic properties.

The Choctaw boiled bayberry and used the result as a treatment for fevers. In 1722, it was reported that colonists in Louisiana drank a mixture of wax and hot water to treat severe dysentery. Bayberry was reported in an account from 1737 as being used to treat convulsions, colic, palsy, and seizures. Starting in the early 19th century, the herbalist Samuel Thomson recommended this plant for producing “heat” within the body and as a treatment for infectious diseases and diarrhea. That use of bayberry waned later in the 19th century, in favor of using it for a variety of ailments, including a topical use for bleeding gums. For twenty years starting in 1916, bayberry root bark was listed in the American National Formulary.

Use of bayberry in herbalism has declined since its peak in popularity in the 19th century. The plant is still used today in the treatment of fever, diarrhea, and a few other ailments. The chemical myricitrin has anti-fever properties. In addition, that chemical, along with the tannins, has anti-diarrheal properties. Myricitrin works as an antibiotic, while the tannins have astringent properties.

In general, either a decoction or a tincture is used. Infusions and a topical paste have also been used.

Pregnant women should not use bayberry. In addition, tannin action relating to cancer is unclear, with studies indicating both pro and anti-cancer effects. Bayberry, just like any other medicinal plant, should only be used under the supervision of a physician.

Culinary uses

The leaves can be washed, dried, and used to season stews or cooking sauces. The berries can also be used as seasoning.

Other uses

Candles

Southern bayberry’s fruits are a traditional source of the wax for old-fashioned Christmas decorations called bayberry candles. The wax was extracted by boiling the berries, and skimming off the floating hydrocarbons. The fats were then boiled again and then strained. After that the liquid was usable in candle making, whether through dipping or molding. Southern bayberry is not the only plant usable for making bayberry candles, however. Its close relatives are also usable.

Southern bayberry and its relatives have largely been supplanted in candlemaking by substitutes made from paraffin. The substitute candles have artificial colors and scents that create candles that look and smell similar to natural ones.

Soap

Wax extracted from boiling the fruit of Myrica cerifera was also used to make scented bayberry soap by early North-American settlers.

Southern Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) Details

Common name Bayberry, Candleberry, Dwarf Bayberry, Dwarf Wax-myrtle, Eastern Bayberry, Southern Bayberry, Southern Waxmyrtle, Southern Wax Myrtle, Tallow Shrub, Waxmyrtle, Wax Myrtle
Botanical name Myrica cerifera
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b, 11a, 11b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Fall
Height 20 ft. 0 in. - 25 ft. 0 in.
Width 20 ft. 0 in. - 25 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Dappled Sunlight (Shade through upper canopy all day)
Soil condition Sand
Flower color Gold/Yellow
Leaf color Green