Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is an unassuming North American shrub with a native range primarily in southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States, with limited coastal populations as far south as North Carolina. It’s a member of Myricaceae, the wax myrtle family, which comprises three or four genera, depending on which taxonomist you talk to. (Some references now use the name Morella pensylvanica for this species.) Northern bayberry is cold hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average annual minimum temperature to -40 degrees F or C) and grows well in a range of soil conditions including sandy and low-fertility sites (its roots can fix atmospheric nitrogen [pdf]). It is quite salt tolerant and can be found growing in the salt-spray zone along seacoasts.
Typically growing 3 to 8 feet (0.9 to 2.4 meters) tall, northern bayberry has an irregularly rounded habit and spreads by rhizomes to form dense colonies. The smooth gray stems are clad with leathery, oblong, glossy green leaves that are usually deciduous but may be semi-evergreen in warmer regions. The leaves are pleasantly aromatic when torn or crushed. Northern bayberry is primarily dioecious (male and female flowers are borne on separate plants); flowers of both sexes are inconspicuous, but pollinated females produce attractive clusters of silvery gray BB-sized fruits along the stems.
Though small in size, those fruits had big value to colonial Americans. They discovered that the fragrant waxy coating on bayberry fruits could be processed and made into clean-burning candles [pdf], a far more desirable form of indoor lighting than the usual smoky pitch torches or smelly animal tallow candles. It took thousands of fruits to yield enough wax for a single candle, but their high quality and fragrance soon made bayberry candles a valuable commodity.
Northern bayberry also has value for songbirds and quail, grouse, and pheasants. The waxy fruits are high in fat, making them a good source of energy for migrating birds such as yellow-rumped warblers and cedar waxwings. When planted with other fruit-bearing native shrubs like arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum), highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), and serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.), northern bayberry can make your landscape more attractive to birds. For tips on growing Myrica from seed, see this Arnoldia article [pdf].
Nancy Rose, editor of Arnoldia