Today we take much of our surroundings for granted. We never stop to think how essential our natural resources used to be for everyday life. Our own wellbeing depends much more on the resourcefulness of others rather than that of our own. The grocery store has replaced the woods, fields and water.
Wax myrtle, (Myrica cerifera), was once a useful staple, but now its chief use seems to be that of inexpensive naturalizing landscaping. It is quite adaptable to different soil types and grows from full sun to dense shade. It even has the ability to fix nitrogen like legumes can. This lessens the need for added fertilizer. Also, the birds love the fruits and will be plentiful in the winter.
This native evergreen shrub, known also as Southern bayberry, has been used as a spice, a tea, an insecticide and a medicinal plant to treat numerous ailments. The waxy fruits were also used to make aromatic candles and the foliage rich in aromatic oils was used as a fire starting material.
This spicy herb is one of the more common woody plants in the area. It can be found in any environment, yet few probably recognize much less use it. Nevertheless, it is a very versatile plant. I don’t buy bay leaves for spaghetti and seafood when I can use wax myrtle.
Use it to replace your Old Bay seasoning the next time you steam some crab or shrimp. Finely crush some leaves and incorporate them in your poultry stuffing or enjoy a cup of herbal tea. It also makes a great simmering potpourri. Use it fresh or dried. I prefer fresh and since it is evergreen and available all year.
Wax myrtle is a large shrub with a dense covering of slender leaves that are slightly widest in the middle. They get much smaller toward the branch tips. Some leaves are almost smooth on the edges; others have a toothed edge. The stems are covered with aromatic glands. Female plants, yes it’s one of those dioecious species, are covered with waxy gray nutlets. This odiferous coating is prized by craftspeople for making scented candles.
Historically, people have crushed the leaves and rubbed them on the skin for a mosquito repellant. Wax myrtle has also been used to repel fleas. Some people even placed small branches in their cupboards to repel cockroaches.
Leaves contain flavonoids, tannins, resins and phenols. Leaves and bark, especially root bark, contain myricitrin. This compound has been used to treat menstrual problems and heal wounds. Preparations are also effective at soothing sore throats. Medicinally, wax myrtle acts as a stimulating astringent and a nutritive blood purifier, known as an alterative. It stimulates the absorption of nutrients.
There are no major side effects for taking wax myrtle leaf and bark extracts internally. Large doses could cause upset stomach and vomiting, but so couldn’t large doses of just about anything. The waxy fruits contain some compounds that may be linked to cancer, but these would have to be taken internally. Simply burning candles made from wax myrtle is totally safe.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.