Grow Native Bayberries for Homemade Candle Wax

Bayberry candles were a prized possession in Colonial America, and with a little work, you can grow your own native shrubs to process the crisp-scented berries at home.

| Winter 2017-2018

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.

Growing Bayberry

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.

1/18/2018 9:04:59 AM

Hello! I'm so happy to see this article that I've just gone over.....a heavy 'scan' but have bookmarked it to fully read/research later this afternoon. So coincidental as we watch a program on the Gamble Plantation in Florida. They showed how the home was lit with bayberry candles (stating that the was was a product from the surrounding areas own plants!) My mother would always prefer this type of scent nearly 60 years ago when we'd only lived in south Florida a few years. I don't think any of us realized that these bayberries were a-part of our own scrub-brush on the land near our home. Thank you for yet another interesting article to read! Sincerely~ D~H~C

elderberry, echinacea, bee hive


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