Myrica cerifera: A Tree That Makes Scents
Wax Myrtle was the Indians’ minimart of the forest.
Need some spice? Drop by the Wax Myrtle tree. How about a little something for the peace pipe? Drop by the Wax Myrtle tree. Are the mosquitoes bothering you? Drop by the Wax Myrtle tree. Want to see a Tachycineta bicolor? Drop by the Wax Myrtle. Tree Swallows in winter love it, eating the berries in a whirlwind. If you’re a birder other winged-ones that like the high-energy berries include the Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Wablers, Vireos, Kinglets and the tiny Carolina Wren, which is more tail than bird.
Native Indians used the leaves for seasoning as we would a bay leaf. The berries were used for seasoning as well but sparingly as they are waxy. Grind them and use like pepper. Though used as a seasoning, that was not the wax myrtle’s main value: The berries when boiled yield a wax that is excellent for making candles. Indeed, that is reflected in the tree’s name Myrica cerifera, MEER-ih-kuh ser-IF-er-uh.
Cerifera means “wax bearing going back to the Greek word Keri for the small bees wax candles used in church services. Myrica is Greek myrike (μυρίκη) which was the Greek name for the “tamarisk” a tree that is aromatic like the wax myrtle. The aroma of the wax myrtle’s leaves can keep mosquitos away. Rub the leaves on you. Tne natives smoked the leaves for the same reason.
Also called the bayberry, as in Bayberry candle, the tree was used extensively by the Indians for a variety of ways including as a pain killer, a pick-me-up, a diuretic, emetic, febrifuge, tonsil gargle, for headaches, stomach aches, to kill worms and for dysentery.
And least you think your life has not been touched by the wax myrtle, its leaves are used to improve the foaming of beer. Think of that the next time you enjoy a stein of suds.
Although the berries are strong, they can be eaten fresh off the tree. They can be preserved or even made into a wine. If you don’t have a M. cefera near you don’t despair. There are others in North America and around the world of various uses. In fact some in Asia and Africa had edible leaves. M. gale fruit and leaves have been used to flavor soups, stews, roasted meats, and seafood. They have also been used for tea. When used to help beer foam the brew is often called Gale Beer. M. californica, M. heterophylla, M. pensylvanica, M. pusilla, and M. rubra have also been used like the M. cefera.
Southerns likes the Myrica (MEER-ik-uh) so much they changed Myrica to miracle and call it the Miracle Bush.
Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile
IDENTIFICATION: Large shrub to small tree, depending on climate, to 10 or 15 feet, six to nine feet across. Olive to gray-green alternate leaves, simple, half an inch to 1.5 inches long. to half inch wide, bayberry scent when crushed. Leaves are smooth on top, hairy below with orange scent glands on both sides. Berries in attached clusters to stems and branches, fall through winter, BB size, light green to bluish-white strong bayberry scent.
TIME OF YEAR: Leaves year round, berries in the fall and winter
ENVIRONMENT: New Jersey to Florida, west to Arkansas and Texas and down in to Central America. It will grow under almost any conditions. It makes a nice bush for xeroscaping as it needs no attention. It can be planted as far north as Rhode Island. Tolerant of salt spray and wind. First cultivated in 1699
METHOD OF PREPARATION: Leaves as is for seasoning, berries ground like pepper. Berries boil to collect wax. Most herbal applications use the bark of the root. The leaves have been used ot smoke mullet.