Wildly Wonderous Wax Myrtle

The bayberry began blooming this week (shown above) which brought to mind an article that I wrote a few years back on the benefits of this hardy Florida native plant.

Dateline: December 3, 2010*

Wax Myrtle blooms in Spring
Wax Myrtle blooms in Spring

Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera or Morella cerifera) aka Southern Bayberry is an evergreen, which is native to the U.S. It is versatile and will work for most landscapes. It can be used alone as a great specimen or group together to form quick growing hedges or privacy screens. Left unpruned, it will become a multitrunk tree, which can reach heights of 25 feet but is normally maintained at 10 to 15 feet. It is a naturally occurring species in my Pine Flatwoods ecosystem and gives a myriad of wildlife entertainment to those who choose it for their landscapes.

Makes a great specimen alone or grouped as a privacy screen
Makes a great specimen alone or grouped as a privacy screen

Wax myrtle grows in a variety of habitats but prefers moist, sandy soils and is a great addition for areas that may experience flooding, yet it proves to be a wonderful, drought-tolerant species once established. It is also salt-tolerant, does well in full sun to partial shade but the growth will be considerably thinner in total shade.  It is recommended for street planting especially beneath powerlines because it looks great in any shape

Berries to feed wildlife or to make bayberry candles
Berries to feed wildlife or to make bayberry candles

It’s functional uses transcend into the home as the wax coated fruits can be used to make scented candles and the leaves can be used to make a pale yellow shade of dye. Although there is no scientific proof that it repels fleas, my dogs have not been treated with chemicals and yet they have no fleas. On the one occasion that I did see fleas, I made an infusion from the leaves and sprayed the dogs. The next day the fleas were gone.

Clip a branch as greenery for a tabletop bouquet
I clip a branch as greenery for use in tabletop bouquets

This plant does have two minor downsides, although they are quite workable and certainly don’t warrant passing this beauty up.

It should not be planted too close to structures as it has oils contained in the leaves which could ignite in a fire.

Puss or Asp Caterpillar, a toxic stinging Caterpillar
Puss or Asp Caterpillar, a toxic stinging Caterpillar

It is larval host for what is said to be one of the most toxic stinging caterpillar in the United States, the puss caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis).  When encountered, I just carefully move these critters to areas not accessible to my dogs as one was stung and got pretty sick…although recovered fine. The resulting Southern Flannel moth is quite pretty in the books, although I’ve yet to see one in the flesh. The caterpillars are hardly prolific. I’ve only encountered maybe 10 or so over the years and I encourage these plants all around my 1-acre property as my choice of privacy screen.

Now on to all it’s best attributes!

A mockingbird nest hidden in the branches of Bayberry
A mockingbird nest hidden in the branches of Bayberry

It provides excellent cover for wildlife. Wild turkey, bob-white quail, various waterfowl, catbirds, thrashers, bluebirds, vireos, warblers, tree swallows, squirrels and other mammals are some of the species who rely on its berries as a winter food source. In my own yard, mockingbirds use it to build well hidden nests albeit some of them prove to be “decoy” nests apparently set up to throw off other birds or the birds of prey.

Buds occur in spring
Buds occur in spring

It is dioecious and only female plants have fruits provided there is a male nearby for pollination. It has subtle yet pretty blooms in the spring. It is a larval host for Red-banded Hairstreak Butterfly, which use the leaf litter below the plant as the host, another good reason to leave your leaves in place. It is a larval host for the beautiful Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus) and serves as a nesting zone for yellow garden spiders and other beneficial creepy crawlies.

Larva of the Polyphemus Moth enjoys a snack
Larva of the Polyphemus Moth enjoys a snack

A welcome bounty for many, including you,  in your beautiful wildlife garden.

USDA hardiness zones: 7 through 10

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on December 3, 2010 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

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