Myrica cerifera (Morella cerifera)
(Cerifera means wax-bearing)
John and George visited Halpatioke Park today in Stuart and pondered Wax Myrtle in full “berry” with newly emerging spring flower clusters, if Feb. 10 is spring.
Wax Myrtle and Bayberry (M. pensylvanica)—think candles in Cape Cod tourist stops—are close cousins. Myrica pensylvanica ranges from Canada to the Carolinas. With a little overlap in range and consequent hybridization, Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) grows from Maryland to Central America. Thus some folks refer to Northern Bayberry (pensylvanica) and Southern Bayberry (cerifera).
A quick nod to noteworthy relatives: Myrica inodora, named by William Bartram, lives in and near the Florida Panhandle. Another Florida resident Myrica heterophylla (or M. caroliniensis, or neither), lives across much of the Southeast southward to central Florida. It differs from M. cerifera by having its leaf glands restricted to the underside of the blade. The taxonomy and nomenclature of this species is unsettled. Readers with northern experience may recall Sweet Gale (Myrica gale) and Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina).
Bayberry fragrance and wax come from boiling the fruits and foliage, mainly of M. pensylvanica. You’d have to be a big-time boiler to generate one candle, or you might mix Bayberry fragrance in with a different wax. By the way, the plants are separate male and female.
The seeds reportedly won’t germinate if not de-waxed, and certain birds do this in their digestive systems. The Yellow Rumped Warbler has a special taste in its broad diet for Myrica fruits, especially during migration. Interestingly, they go also for Juniper “berries” too, which are likewise blue, pungent-oily, and wax-coated. Migrating birds have high metabolic demands and use lipids as stored fuel.
Ecologist Clarmarie Moss devoted a portion of her 1993 Masters Thesis to these berry important matters. Myrica fruits and Juniper “berries” topped her chart in terms of “optimal lipid profitability.” She found the range of the Yellow Rumped Warbler tied to Myrica distribution in place and time. She noted that the mutualism between the two species fits a model known in other bird-plant relationships were the comparatively non-showy and peekaboo fruits in the foliage shadows favor the birds adapted to the relationship. Preferred customers.
Wax Myrtle is clearly a successful species, and as my mother used to say (well, she still does): you make your own luck. Wax Myrtle improves its habitat by enhancing the soil and by bullying the competition. Ever wonder why Wax Myrtles are so willing to grow here, there, and everywhere? They belong to the select group of non-legumes blessed with their own bacterial root nodules. In our area that clique includes Australian-Pines and Silverthorns, both weedy and tolerant of poor soils. Oddly, most of the non-legumes with bacterial nodules all share the same bacterium, Frankia alni, a filament-shaped bacterium once thought to be a fungus, and very different from that associated with legumes. It transforms atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia.
Does the lawn look a little iffy around the Wax Myrtles? They poison competing vegetation, including pines, grasses, and even Brazilian Pepper. Experimenters have doused plants with Wax Myrtle extracts and shown the herbicidal effect under “lab” conditions. It would be interesting to study weed distribution around Wax Myrtles. The effect may not be 100% negative, since there could be species immune to the toxin and favored by the ammonia-enriched soil. A project for another day.
In short, next time you brush past a Wax Myrtle, show some respect. How many shrubs provide aroma therapy, jet fuel for warblers, free fertilizer, and Round-Up-free weed control?