Do you ever wonder how humans began using plants? Who was the first joker to dare their friend to eat a tomato? What’s the story behind our discovery that rubber can be made from the goldenrod plant?
It doesn’t take a wild stretch of the imagination to picture how early American settlers began using bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) fruit to make candles. Perhaps, struggling through her first winter along the harsh New England coast, a young girl is sent out to gather driftwood along the shore. Although it’s cold out, she’s happy for a breath of fresh air. The candles in her home’s close interior are made of tallow; they stink when idle and belch great gouts of black smoke that stain the ceiling when lit. She steps carefully along soil that’s mixed with sand and trails her fingers through the thick hedge that pushes her closer to the sea. There are gray berries among the salt-sprayed, evergreen foliage, and as she brushes against them, her hands and skirt come away with a scented, tacky wax. Later, when winter grows long and supplies run short, leaving no candles in the cupboards, this young girl remembers that waxy feeling on her fingertips and the resin that lifted off her skirts when she did the washing. She decides to experiment with making a candle that reminds her of a brisk walk outside rather than the stench of the barnyard.
These seemingly mundane moments of discovery are lost to history, surely of too little importance to be recorded. Historically, there’s more to suggest that bayberry fruit was pressed into medicinal use before household use. One thing is sure, bayberry wax was a big deal in Colonial America.
There are several native bayberry species, including Myrica pensylvanica, M. gale, M. californica, and M. rubra. In all cases, the leaves are at least semi-evergreen, and the peppercorn-sized berries are gray. The first time you try to collect them, you’ll quickly understand why bayberry wax was a precious commodity that was only burned on special occasions. Depending on the variety, your soil, and the weather, making 1 pound of wax can take anywhere from 6 to 15 pounds of berries.
Clearly, it’s worth it. Bayberry wax is the stuff of legend. According to proverb, “A bayberry candle burnt down to the socket brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket.” Bayberry candles were reserved for special occasions, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, to bring in good fortune.
Bayberry is endangered in my home state of Ohio. Its natural habitat is threatened, so it now relies on gardeners for its preservation. Beyond its fragrant semi-evergreen foliage, the shrub easily suckers to form a dense hedge. It’s perfect for walling off the neighbors! The scent enjoyed by my family also repels rabbits and deer, making a bayberry hedge a great option for a living garden wall. The thicket provides a safe space for birds to nest, and the plant is a host for 106 species of butterflies and moths.
The berries aren’t entirely digestible, so songbirds, such as tree swallows, catbirds, bluebirds, chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, and yellow-rumped warblers, have had to adapt. They choose to eat the gray berries last, after they’ve exhausted other food sources, which is why the berries remain on our shrubs as late as February. The University of Rhode Island found that the berries contain 50.3 percent fat, making them excellent winter food for songbirds.
Bayberries are fairly happy in just about any soil type from Zones 3 to 7, so long as the soil is well-drained. This shrub is especially tolerant of salt, and prefers to be in full sun or a bit of dappled shade. The roots fix nitrogen and improve soil. Bayberry’s pale-yellow blooms are wind-pollinated and appear only on the female shrub. This means they’re dioecious — you must have a male shrub and a female shrub to get berries.
Bayberry in the Medicine Cabinet
While bayberry could easily earn a place in any garden purely for its history and utility, there’s also a long history of healthful benefits centering on its root bark, leaves, and berries. Bayberry was written about extensively in the early history of Western medicine and was especially valued by practitioners of Thomsonian medicine.
Most of our scientific information about the bayberry comes from chemical analysis of the root bark, which is the part of the plant that’s currently available commercially. Historic literature suggests that bayberry root bark has drying and astringent properties. It also seems to be a special kind of expectorant — not just aiding the body in expelling built-up phlegm inside passageways, but specifically releasing what has become stuck to mucous membranes. This can be very helpful during a cold with a hard, wracking cough. It’s more often used today for digestive ailments, in which mucus becomes sticky in the bowels. Bayberry’s astringency and its chemical compound myricitrin are both effective at stimulating digestive processes and encouraging movement when the bowel has become lazy and weak.
During colonial times, bayberry was primarily used to treat fever and diarrhea. In fact, after boiling the berries for wax, the wastewater that remained was really just a strong tea often used to treat symptoms of dysentery.
Some have concerns about the use of bayberry in modern herbalism, however — they’re concerned the plant contains problematic chemicals. While some go so far as to tout cancer treatment possibilities, others believe it might actually cause cancer. If taken in large doses, bayberry can encourage nausea and vomiting. All of this, coupled with the loss of popularity in Western herbalism, merits some consideration. Herbalist Matthew Wood suggests its use in very small doses of tea. Bayberry is currently the subject of numerous clinical studies on a number of ailments — including the antibacterial agency of its berries — with promising results. I suspect it will become a popular supplement again, and that we’ll see an increased understanding of appropriate ways to ingest it.
Devoting space on our land to a bayberry hedge is easy enough. The hedge does take up a fair amount of room, but when I brush against it, I can picture that girl walking along the sea. I’m connected to the shared history of a plant that offered up food, medicine, and light during a challenging time in American history.
How to Render Bayberry Wax
Bayberries are typically gathered from October through November, but you may find them on the shrub even later in winter. If you don’t have access to the berries, you can purchase bayberry wax from beekeeping suppliers, such as Betterbee. To render your own wax, keep reading!
1. Gather your berries. The quantity you gather can depend on how much patience you have and how much wax you need! It’s tedious work, but if you gather 15 pounds of berries, you’re likely to end up with about 1 pound of wax.
2. Wash and dry the berries, removing as many stems and as much debris as you can.
3. Place the berries in a large canning pot you don’t care about (a waxy residue will remain after processing, making the pot difficult to clean and use again for food consumption).
4. Fill the pot with water 2 inches over your berries. Measure this before you add the water, as the berries will float until after they’re cooked.
5. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Keep the pot covered as much as possible, and keep the heat very low to help capture the volatile oils from the berries.
6. After 10 to 15 minutes, you can begin skimming wax from the top of the water. You can continue to skim for as long as the berries give up wax, filling a candle pot with the wax as you collect it. Alternatively, you can simply stop the process at this point and allow the pot to cool overnight. The wax will solidify on top of the water inside the pot, allowing you to remove the wax layer and transfer it to a candle pot.
7. Reheat the bayberry wax. This second heating will incorporate all the small pieces of wax and allow you to do a final removal of debris by straining the hot wax through two layers of cheesecloth.
8. Strain the wax into the shaping mold of your choice and cool for storage, or move on to candle making. Bayberry wax is notoriously brittle and unstable, so many people cut it with beeswax in a 1-to-2 ratio of beeswax to bayberry wax. If you wish to make bayberry candles for a special occasion, the tradition involves burning the entire candle in one evening, so you’ll want to make either small tapers or votives.
Burning an entire bayberry candle in one sitting is said to bring prosperity and good luck to a household. Make small tapers or votives to keep from burning too much midnight oil while you fill your home with positive energy.
Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist, author, speaker, and educator who homesteads with her family in central Ohio. Find her book, Heal Local, in the Heirloom Gardener store.