Homegrown Habitat, November 2023: Northern Bayberry
Northern Bayberry grows in the most inhospitable places, which makes it ideal for Connecticut, especially along the coast. Sarah Middeleer explains why. Email her your thoughts and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
During this gray, dark time of year, the flame-colored leaves we’ve enjoyed so much in the last month or so turn brown and drop onto the cold ground (where they nonetheless continue to make vital contributions to the ecosystem). But an often overlooked shrub lets us know that there is yet life and spirit in the landscape—if we would just take the time to notice.
It might not be the showiest shrub on the block, but northern bayberry actually looks terrific these days. In fact, I have enjoyed seeing them recently in the islands of my local grocery store parking lot, where their leaves are still proudly green while many of the other shrubs gave up for the winter several weeks ago. Kudos to the folks who placed these native plants in this setting—the shrubs are tough, attractive, and beneficial to native insects and birds. If only the landscape crews wouldn’t prune the bayberries so often, because the shrubs could be doing even more environmental good if allowed to bear fruit.
Northern bayberry (Morella caroliniensis, formerly Myrica pensylvanica), also known as waxberry, wax myrtle, miracle bush, and candle berry, is a large, semi-evergreen shrub that grows in the most inhospitable places, immune to salt in the air and soil, as well as poor, clay, dry, wet, and sandy soils. In fact, bayberry will help to enrich poor soil because it is nitrogen-fixing (a trait common to plants in the legume family as well). The semi-evergreen, leathery leaves hold up bravely against the late-fall frosts, providing a welcome glimpse of greenery until the bitter winter cold settles in for good until spring. And the silvery berries are a delight all winter.
Bayberry is native to eastern North America from Newfoundland to Ontario and Ohio, and south to North Carolina. The genus name Myrica comes from the Greek “myrike,” which means fragrance. The leaves and berries release a spicy scent when crushed, and the berries have been used since Colonial times for making soap and candles due to their waxy coating. Bayberry leaves can also be used in cooking like sweet bay, producing a very similar flavor, and also to brew tea. Another benefit of their fragrance is that bayberry leaves repel deer and insect pests (although once the leaves do finally drop, deer will evidently browse the twigs).
The attractive berries with their frosted appearance are borne by female plants and are thought to be indigestible to many birds. In fact, Yellow-Rumped Warblers, affectionately known as butter butts, are thought to be the only warbler species that can tolerate this tough fruit. (Myrtle Warblers, an eastern subspecies of Yellow-Rumped Warblers, are even named for their association with this genus.) And thus the butter butts were said to be the only warbler that lingers this far north during these cold months (although in recent winters we have seen more warblers in Connecticut).
But actually as many as 80 other species of birds eat bayberry fruit, including residents such as Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, and Eastern Bluebirds. And migrants such as Eastern Meadowlarks, thrushes, Tree Swallows, and Gray Catbirds also feed on bayberry fruit. Studies have shown that bayberry fruit is an important source for insectivorous birds along the Mid-Atlantic coast during migration. And in Massachusetts, bayberry is valuable to the rare Northern Harrier, which has been recorded using dense bayberry thickets for breeding.
If you garden in a coastal area, bayberry will grow happily with American beachgrass, seaside goldenrod, beach plum, Eastern red cedar, and black cherry. But well beyond the shore, this highly adaptable shrub also grows compatibly with red maple, switchgrass, and little bluestem. Another recommended combination is bayberry, gray dogwood, shining sumac, beach plum, Virginia rose, and common juniper. When we foster native plants in their natural plant communities, we not only help to ensure the plants’ success, but we promote thriving wildlife populations.
Bayberries grow slowly to possibly 10 feet tall and five to 10 feet wide and prefer full sun but tolerate part shade. Many experts recommend no pruning at all, or simply removing older stems every other year or so.
Consider using bayberries along the driveway or street, and for rain gardens, screening hedges, and woodland or meadow edges. They will make an attractive and bird-friendly addition to a mixed hedgerow. And the semi-evergreen foliage of bayberries will be a lovely complement to the scarlet fruit of winterberries (Ilex verticillata)—which are themselves particularly striking at this time of year (see this article). Allowed to grow naturally, they will spread by suckers to form dense colonies, thus providing ideal avian habitat.
Laura Erickson, 100 Plants to Feed the Birds Turn Your Home Garden into a Healthy Bird Habitat, Storey Publishing, 2022
Anna Failkoff, Native Shrubs for Northeast Landscapes, Wild Seed Project, 2023
Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe, Native Plants for New England Gardens, Globe Pequot, 2018