One of my favorite plants of the Cape May area is Bayberry. They are a native and one that the birds help to spread. Bayberry says seashore. Traditionally the berries of these evergreen plants have been used to make candles.
We have always burned Bayberry candles on Christmas Eve. Often times we have to put them in the sink to finish burning when we go to midnight mass since tradition says they must burn to the end. My mother-in-law used to give us the candles when we were first married, maintaining that they bring good luck when someone gives them to you. To this day I like to give Bayberry candles as gifts. There is quite a history connected to this native plant that grows so readily in our sandy South Jersey soil.
Part of the fun is to go collect the berries. Most grow in the coastal areas near the shore and are probably protected, but you can grow them in your yard. They grow throughout one of our fields where the birds spread the seed from the original plant.
I love the December fields and woods because they are like a banquet table laden with colorful dishes. Leaves have fallen so berries can be seen everywhere! When we collect at the farm, I always look for Bayberries and try to pick a big bundle to use for wreaths and decorations. The birds have spread them across the overgrown area of towering trees with some now in too much shade to produce good berries. The ones in the sun have many berries.
We often gather these fragrant, gray/white waxy berries to use them in arrangements with Bayberry candles. They keep well dried, lasting for years. They also look really great glued to swags or wreaths.
The wax from the berries is used to make candles, cosmetics and soap. It is removed from the berries by boiling them in water so it will float to the top. It melts at 116 to 120 degrees and is harder and more brittle than beeswax. Candles made from it are aromatic and smokeless after snuffing.
Last year I wanted to make Bayberry candles with a native plant study group that meets at my home. I picked some branches with berries and leaves and proceeded to look for instructions. I found out that four pounds of berries yield about one pound of wax! When I realized that I had only a few cups of berries I had to change my plans. So, I melted a large block of bee’s wax in a big coffee can over a pot of hot water. To this, I added all the berries, leaves and even small pieces of the stem including the bark. It simmered for about four hours and became dark Army green, almost brown, but it smelled very good. We hung pieces of wick in small Dixie cups and poured in the hot wax. When it cooled we each had a nice Bayberry votive.
We did not dip our candles as the Colonial people did, but rather poured them. If you have ever dipped candles, you know what a tedious task it is. Beginning with the wick and dipping it up and down, over and over again in the hot wax until the candle is formed. It is a fun thing to do only if you have the time, but a necessity back in Colonial times if there was to be light after sunset. It was considered to be “woman’s work” and they were constantly experimenting with additives to seek ways in which the candles would burn longer.
According to old stories and legends in the 1700s, just before Christmas, a small group of women in a little New England colony added the oil of the Bayberry to their candles. Not only did the candles burn longer, but they also gave off a most delightful scent. So pleased were they that they decided to make a Christmas Eve gift of these candles to each home in the village. Thus the poem:
A bayberry candle
Burned to the socket
Brings joy to the home
And wealth to the pocket
Today folks still love to give and receive Bayberry candles. However, in order for these good luck wishes to come true for you, the candles should be given to you as a gift. But I am sure many folks break this rule and buy their own.
And remember, once lit, traditionally on Christmas Eve, they must be allowed to burn out. You must not blow them out or all the good luck wishes will go up in the smoke and be lost. Should you have to leave your home or retire before the candles have burned out, simply place them in the sink where they can burn without danger. It is a charming old tradition and one you might like to begin with your own friends and loved ones. Bayberry has also been used for making sealing-wax.
The official Latin Name is Myrica but in many locales people call it Wax Myrtle, Candleberry, Candleberry Myrtle, Waxberry, and Tallow Shrub. In the past the native people as well as Colonial people used parts of this plant medicinally.
Our northern bayberry Myrica pensylvanica grows in thickets near swamps and marshes but in sand along the Atlantic coast and east in similar places to the shores of Lake Erie. The early American Colonists found the Bayberry tree growing throughout the East in sandy coastal areas from New England to Florida.
Initially, Bayberry was used medicinally only in the South, where the Choctaw Indians boiled the leaves and drank the decoction as a treatment for fever. During the early 19th century, Bayberry root was used for colds, flu and other infectious diseases in addition to diarrhea and fever. The dried berries were even put in broth and used as spices. The leaves were infused like tea. Folk medicine says that Bayberry stimulates lymphatic drainage and encourages the healing of mucus membranes. Contemporary herbalists recommend using the herb externally for varicose veins and internally for diarrhea, dysentery, colds, flu, bleeding gums, and sore throat. They say it is excellent to use in the early stages of infection, as it contains myricitrin, which exhibits antibiotic activity against a wide range of bacteria.
If you have a sandy, sunny place in your yard, plant a few Bayberry. Its height is from three to eight feet, with small leaves that are shiny and resinous. The stems are dotted on both sides with flowers that are unisexual producing fruit in small groups of round berries with black grains crusted with greenish-white wax. These remain on the shrub for two or three years until they fall or the birds eat them. The leaves are very fragrant when rubbed. Bayberry needs very little care once established. It does not like to be over watered or fertilized too much. Remember where it grows natively, in sandy wasteland!
I still love to give Bayberry candles and have found a few good sources for the real ones made by real people here in the U S. They are simple and fragrant and make a real nice hostess gifts during the holiday season. Come see our wreaths and arrangements when Triple Oaks has a Christmas Open House from November 21 through November 29.
Lorraine Kiefer has gardened all of her life. She is a garden writer, floral designer and professional horticulturist. Lorraine teaches many classes at Triple Oaks nursery and Herb Garden in Franklinville, NJ. Email Lorraine@tripleoaks.com for garden help or leave your questions below! www.tripleoaks.com