Waxmyrtle

Myrica cerifera
Family: Myricaceae

Natural Historywax myrtle branch
Fruits of waxmyrtle
Photo credit: Chris Evans, Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, Bugwood.org

Waxmyrtle is also known as southern bayberry or candleberry because early American colonists used the fruit's pale blue, waxy covering to make fragrant bayberry candles. This custom is still carried out today by crafts people here and in other countries. The tree's distinctive, fragrant scent comes from volatile oils contained in tiny glands on the leaves. These oils cause waxmyrtle to ignite in a flash in a fire, making wax myrtle a very flammable plant.

Habitat & Range

Waxmyrtle grows in a variety of habitats but prefers moist sandy soils. It is found in swamps, flatwoods, pinelands, upland hardwood forests, and along fresh or brackish waterways. It occurs from New Jersey south along the coast to southern Florida and west through the Gulf States to Texas. It can be found growing at elevations up to 500 feet.

Wildlife Use

Waxmyrtle is important for wildlife that depends on the persistent fruits for fat and fiber in their winter diet. Birds, such as wild turkey, bob-white quail, various waterfowl, catbirds, thrashers, bluebirds, vireos, and warblers are all frequent visitors to wax myrtle thickets. The berries are the main food for wintering tree swallows in Florida. Wildlife is the primary disperser of waxmyrtle seeds.

Human Use

The waxy coating of the fruits is sometimes used to make candles, which burn with a bluish flame. When extinguished a lasting fragrant aroma remains. Waxmyrtle is also a popular landscape tree and is often grown as a dense hedge for natural screening.


 

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: Waxmyrtle grows as an evergreen shrub or small tree and can reach 20 to 40 feet in height, 8 to 10 inches in diameter. Individual plants may have a narrow, rounded crown but multi-stemmed clumps often display wide, rounded crowns.
Leaves: Leaves are simple, alternate, and persistent. The leaves are 2 to 4 inches long, ½ inch wide, elliptical in shape, with an acute apex and wedge-shaped base. Leaf margins are coarsely serrate-toothed. Leaves are yellow-green with small dark glands above and bright orange glands below. When bruised or crushed, they give off an aromatic odor. Petioles are short and stout.
Twigs: The twigs are slender, becoming dark brown and glabrous in their second season. The pith homogeneous.
Bark: The bark is thin, smooth, and gray-green with gray patches.
Flowers: The flowers of this plant are dioecious. They occur in oblong catkins.
Fruit: The fruit is a small, light green, round drupe covered with a bluish-white wax. The fruits are borne in clusters, attached to short spikes along the branches. The seeds are small and pale. Fruits mature in autumn and persist until spring.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:

 

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