#TeachingTuesday: Southern Waxmyrtle
This week, we are focusing on the southern waxmyrtle, also known as southern bayberry (scientific name Morella cerifera, formerly Myrica cerifera). This fast-growing evergreen shrub is native to South Carolina and surrounding southern states. Its fast growth rate and tolerance of deer, drought, wind, salt, sandy soils, and full sun make it a very popular hedge shrub for beach properties. If you vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, you will see it everywhere. However, it can also be limbed up to form an attractive small tree in the landscape. There are some beautiful specimens on the NC State main campus where you can see the result of careful pruning.
Waxmyrtles are similar to hollies, in that male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, so only female plants will produce the iconic waxy berries. About forty different bird species eat the berries and use the shrubs for shelter or nesting, so it’s an excellent choice for wildlife. The leaves and stems contain oil glands that produce a strong, aromatic fragrance (the bayberry scent), and the same fragrance is contained in the waxy coating of the berries. Both Native Americans and early settlers made scented candles by boiling the stems and berries to melt out the wax. These evenly-burning, smokeless candles were exported and became very popular with Europeans, especially among royalty.
As if we need another reason to like this plant, it has nitrogen-fixing roots, which work at a faster rate than legumes (the plant group most famous for nitrogen fixation). This means that the common waxmyrtle does not need fertilizer (at least, it doesn’t need nitrogen), because it can take nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it into the soil for itself or other plants to use.
One thing to consider is that because waxmyrtles are literally full of oils and waxes, they are highly flammable. Avoid planting them right against your home or around a fire pit, and be very careful about activities such as smoking, using fireworks, or lighting tiki torches near them.