Bayberry Shrubs Offer Gray Berries, Salt Tolerance

Bayberry shrubs with berries
David Beaulieu

"Northern bayberry shrub," (hereafter, simply "bayberry shrub"), is a common name for the bush that plant taxonomy calls Myrica pensylvanica. The "Northern" part of the common name is meant to distinguish it from a bush also native to the eastern seaboard of the U.S., but further south: Myrica cerifera. Both are in the Waxmyrtle family.

The Southern cousin is sometimes referred to as "Southern bayberry shrub"; others call it "wax-myrtle," which can be deceiving since Myrica pensylvanica can also be referred to in this way. So for purposes of clarity, stick with the scientific name.

Myrica pensylvanica is a mainly deciduous shrub. It may hang on to some of its leaves during the winter, but in that case, they will probably look ratty. Your winter landscape will be better off without them so that the view of the "bayberries" is not obscured (the berries being the part of the bush that has the most ornamental value). The plant is naturally dioecious.

Plant Characteristics

Because the plant adapts to a number of different soil conditions (in each of which its growth may be somewhat different) it's difficult to specify a height for it. We've seen it listed as possibly reaching 10 feet or more in height, but we're familiar with it mainly as a bush that grows wild in the sand dunes near the ocean, where the dry conditions limit it to a smaller size.

Growth habit is rounded, and the branches fill in densely, providing some cover for wild birds even when few leaves still cling to the bush. The leathery, aromatic foliage has a slight sheen to it.

Bayberry shrubs are not grown for their flowers, which are insignificant. Rather, it is the silvery-gray berries that succeed the flowers that create interest in the plant. Although referred to colloquially as "berries," botanists call the fruit a "drupe."

Planting Zones and Growing Requirements

Myrica pensylvanica is an indigenous plant along the northern part of the eastern seaboard in the U.S.; its range also extends into Canada. These bushes will grow in planting zones 3-7.

Grow bayberry shrubs in full sun. They are not at all fussy about the ground in which they grow, as long as the soil is well-drained. We know them as bushes that grow in very dry ground (namely, sand dunes) as well as at the edges of marshy areas. They thrive in poor soils where other plants would stumble because they are nitrogen fixers.

Uses for Bayberry Shrubs

While bayberry shrubs fade somewhat into the background during the summer and autumn, they may be most valued for the novelty their gray berries afford to the winter landscape.

Speaking of winter, note that the salt tolerance of bayberry shrubs extends beyond tolerance to sea salt: use them in roadside plantings where other bushes might die from being tainted by all the road salt that the snowplows push onto your landscape!

Myrica cerifera, the southern relation, grows larger and bears evergreen leaves, making it useful in hedges designed to function as outdoor privacy screens.

Wildlife Attracted―and Not Attracted―to Bayberry Shrubs

Because of the resin in their branches and the strong smell of their leaves, these bushes are deer-resistant shrubs.

But bayberry shrubs are plants that attract birds. If planted en masse, the resulting thicket, created by their dense branching patterns, will afford the wild birds some cover in winter. The gray berries, while not a preferred food source for most birds (their waxiness may not be very palatable), do serve as an emergency food source.

Care for Bayberry Shrubs

Bayberry shrubs can spread by root suckering (in sandy soils) the way forsythia bushes do, so you may need to remove new plants, occasionally, if you are not interested in having them blanket an area with a colony. On the other hand, if you have the space, you may value their ability to spread and allow them to do so, especially if you are a bird-watcher. Wild birds are more likely to frequent a property that affords some cover (they feel less exposed and, therefore, less threatened), and a thicket of bayberry is perfect for this purpose.

Other than that, these are very low-maintenance bushes. As nitrogen-fixers (see above), they produce fertilizer for themselves. You do not need to prune them often (if at all) since they are slow-growing bushes. In fact, you should take care to avoid any pruning that would ruin the form. If rejuvenation pruning is in order, take advantage of their root-suckering quality and prune them as you would prune overgrown lilacs, removing a third of the old growth each year for three successive years.

The fragrance of the leaves provides more benefits than you might think: besides repelling deer (see above), the smell seems to keep insect pests at bay.

Outstanding Features

It is rather unusual to encounter a bush with gray berries in the northeastern United States, so this feature of bayberry shrubs could certainly serve as a conversation starter when you are showing your landscape off to your gardening friends.

Moreover, bayberry is valued as being one of the fragrant plants of landscaping that do not rely on something as ephemeral as blooms for their aroma but on their leaves. This means that you'll be able to enjoy the smell all summer and fall. As you go by the bush, press hard on a leaf; this will release the fragrance into the air.

That these bushes are low-maintenance is a bonus. And as salt-tolerant plants, they give residents of seaside communities another option for beach landscaping.

More on Bayberry Shrubs

We first encountered bayberry shrubs in what, for us, is hallowed ground: the sand dunes of Plum Island. No, not the Plum Island that will be familiar to Long Islanders (New York); we're talking about the barrier island off the coast of northeastern Massachusetts, the site of this picture of eastern red cedar. Plum Island is a paradise for wild birds, being covered in thickets composed not only of bayberry but also such bushes as winterberry.

Note that there's no typo in the botanical name presented above: Myrica pensylvanica. Yes, that's like "Pennsylvania," but with just one N. Also note that the genus name is pronounced mi-RAHY-kuh, i.e., with the accent on the middle syllable. Do not confuse this plant with barberry bush.

Candle aficionados will recognize bayberries as the waxy source exploited by the early European settlers of New England to make fragrant candles.