The discovery of bayberry bushes was a boon to colonial households. For at least a generation after the first European settlement in North America, dwellings were dimly lit at best. Tallow, or rendered beef or sheep fat, the principal ingredient of candles, was in short supply as few cattle had been introduced into the new land. Settlers relied for light on smoky grease lamps or burned strips of resinous pinewood or pine knots, which produced a bright flame but dripped pitch. Some burned grease-soaked rushes held in iron pincers as they had done in Europe.
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.
Bayberry candles are smokeless, and they produce a clear white flame. Their aromatic scent is most noticeable just after the wick has been snuffed out. But they are a chore to make: it requires some four pounds of the tiny berries to produce a pound of wax.
As cattle became more common in the settlements, tallow candles became the norm, but bayberries sometimes were added to scent them. These candles were a lot less work to make and less likely to droop in warm weather. Today, bayberry is still a favorite candle fragrance, particularly during holidays, but the scent generally comes from an essential oil or candle scent that is added to candle wax just before it’s poured into a mold. Rarely are pure bayberry candles found in stores any more; when they do appear in specialty shops, they carry a hefty price tag.
Bayberry plants of at least three different species have been harvested by candle makers for their waxy berries. All are members of the genus Myrica (family Myricaceae), and all have great ornamental value in the landscape. They are handsome as hedges or as individual specimens whether you intend to make candles from the fruits or not.
The New Englanders’ bayberry (or candleberry, swamp candleberry, or tallowbush) is M. pensylvanica, a compact shrub that grows wild along the coast from Newfoundland to North Carolina. Although it can grow to 9 feet tall and broad, 3 to 5 feet is more likely in gardens. The leaves, deciduous in the northern part of its range, sometimes semievergreen to the south, are ovals to 4 inches long which may be toothed toward the tip and are resin-dotted beneath. As in other members of the genus, the insignificant male and female flowers (catkins) are produced on separate plants in spring, and both kinds are needed for berry production. M. pensylvanica grows in Zones 2 through 8 and thrives in poor, sandy, acid soil in full sun but tolerates heavy clay, salt spray, and part shade as well. It can be propagated by replanting suckers; new plants will be the same sex as the parent (only one male is needed for every six to ten females). If you are not in a hurry, you can plant berries gathered in fall; scrape off the wax by rubbing them on a screen and refrigerate them in moist peat for 90 days, or scrape and plant directly in the ground.
Wax myrtle (M. cerifera) is a small evergreen tree with a rounded crown native to the Coastal Plain from New Jersey to Florida and Texas. Its maximum height is about 35 feet, but 10 to 15 feet is more common. Shorter cultivars are available, some of which spread by suckering. Its bark is pale gray, and the leaves are narrower and more pointed than those of M. pensylvanica. Hardy to Zone 7, this species also tolerates poor, sandy soil and salt spray but thrives in moist, fertile, peaty soil.
Western settlers made their candles from California wax myrtle (M. californica), native along the coast from Washington to California. This species also has evergreen leaves and a mature height of 35 feet. The purple berries are about 1/4 inch long.
Bayberry plants are easy to grow from container-grown plants. Choose a species that is hardy where you live. A coastal location is not necessary. Plant several because you’ll need both male and female plants to ensure that berries are produced. Little pruning is required. Mulch M. cerifera plants heavily for winter protection if you want to grow this species in the northern part of its range. They will not grow as tall as they do farther south.
Cooks have used bayberry leaves and fruits as a substitute for bay leaf and have brewed a beverage tea from the leaves. The fruits have been eaten fresh or preserved, or fermented into wine. Leaves intended for seasoning are best picked early in summer. Pick the berries in late summer or fall.
Medicinal bayberry teas have been brewed to treat sore throats, uterine hemorrhages, and jaundice; poultices made from the root bark have soothed ulcers and insect bites. The Choctaw used a decoction of the leaves and stems to treat fever and a decoction of the root bark for spongy gums. Today, the safety of bayberry, at least when it is taken internally in large doses, is suspect. Animal studies have shown it to be a possible carcinogen.
Henry David Thoreau used bayberry wax to remove pine pitch from his hands. The wax has also been used in soaps, as a wound plaster, and to seal letters. An infusion of the bark is astringent and has been added to soaps and ointments. The dried berries can be used in decorative arrangements. Undoubtedly, however, bayberry will always be best known for its use in fragrant, gray-green candles.
The Flowery Branch, PO Box 1330, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Catalog $2. Seeds of Myrica cerifera and M. pensylvanica.
Forestfarm, 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544-9599. Catalog $3. Plants of all three species.