From Colonial Homes to Yours

Bayberry plants give light and life.

| October/November 2001

In the early days of settlement in the new world, European settlers dimly lit their North American colony homes and workplaces with candles. Tallow, or rendered beef or sheep fat, was the principal ingredient of candles. It was in short supply because 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. But this was not the most productive or glamorous option.

Soon, however, housewives were able to replace these fourth- rate sources of illumination with candles that produced a pleasant fragrance along with improved lighting when bayberry bushes were discovered in coastal areas. 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 hot and melted. Then, 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 used a wick more than twice as long as the finished candle. Looping it over a hardwood rod, she lowered the wick into the wax, then lifted it out to cool and harden. She repeated the dipping and lifting until the candles were the desired size.

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. These candles are a chore to make: it requires some four pounds of the tiny berries to produce a pound of wax—but this was still preferred over burning oil.

As cattle became more common in the settlements, tallow candles became the norm, but bayberries sometimes were added to scent them. These candles were easier 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 anymore; when they do appear in specialty shops, they are relatively expensive.

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.

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