Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a dense deciduous shrub native to the eastern U.S. These are dioecious shrub in which some plants have male flowers and others female flowers. If a male plant is present for pollination, the female plants will produce graying berries that can be used to make waxy, aromatic candles and soaps.
The 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 know this kind of fruit structure as a drupe—a type of simple fruit that contains a single hard seed, or stone, in the centers.
|Botanical Name||Myrica pensylvanica|
|Common Names||Bayberry, northern bayberry, wax myrtle|
|Plant Type||Deciduous shrub|
|Mature Size||5 to 10 feet tall, similar spread|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil Type||Dry to moist, well drained soil|
|Soil pH||6.0 to 7.5|
|Flower Color||Yellowish-green (insignificant)|
|Hardiness Zones||3 to 7 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Eastern North America|
How to Grow Bayberry Shrubs
Grow bayberry shrubs in full sun. They are not at all fussy about the soil in which they grow, as long as it is well-drained. These are bushes that grow in very dry ground (even sand dunes) as well as at the edges of marshy areas. Because they are nitrogen fixers, these plants can thrive in poor soils where other plants would stumble.
Bayberry shrubs spread by root suckering in the same way that forsythia bushes do, so you may need to remove new plants if you are not interested in having them blanket an area with a colony. Or, if you have the space, you may value their ability to spread, especially if you are a bird-watcher. Wild birds are more likely to frequent a property that affords some cover, and a thicket of bayberry is perfect for this purpose.
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. This plant has almost no issues with pests and diseases.
Bayberry shrubs will grow well in full sun to part shade.
This plant thrives best in moist, peaty soil, but it will do nearly as well in dry, sandy soil. It prefers soil that is somewhat acidic but will tolerate neutral and slightly alkaline soils.
Bayberry will tolerate both drought and deluge conditions. In most environments, there will be no need to water it at all. Nor will it be adversely affected by boggy conditions.
Temperature and Humidity
This plant will thrive in the climate conditions throughout its hardiness range, USDA zones 3 to 7.
There is no need to feed bayberry shrubs. It is a "nitrogen fixer"—a plant that extracts nitrogen from the air, so it grows quite well even in poor soils. Over time, bayberry shrubs will improve the nutritional value of the soil; it is often used in soil restoration efforts.
Pruning Bayberry Shrubs
You do not need to prune bayberry shrubs often (if at all) since they are slow-growing. 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.
Propagating Bayberry Shrubs
Like many shrubs, bayberry is best propagated by rooting softwood or semi-softwood cuttings:
Immediately after the blossoms have faded, take a 6-inch cutting from vigorous side branches, making the cut just below a leaf node. Remove all the leaves from the lower half of the cutting and dip this end in rooting hormone.
Plant the lower end of the cutting into a small container filled with wet sand. Keep the cutting misted with water and covered with a plastic bag. Water the sand whenever it becomes dry to the touch. Within three weeks or so, roots should appear, and after another two weeks, you can transfer the plant to a larger pot filled with standard potting mix. Allow to grow through the summer, then plant into the garden in the fall.
Varieties of Bayberry
In landscape use, it is usually the native species that is planted. Only one cultivar exists, 'Wildwood'. Developed from four superior strains of the native species, 'Wildwood' is semi-evergreen, growing 6 to 7 feet in height.
Compared to Southern Bayberry
M. pensyvania is often known as Northern bayberry to distinguish it from a related plant known as southern bayberry (Myrica cerifera). This bush is also native to the eastern seaboard, but generally is found further south. Both are in the Waxmyrtle family.
Myrica cerifera, the southern relation, grows larger and bears evergreen leaves, making it useful in hedges designed to function as outdoor privacy screens.
Bayberry is a versatile shrub that is often planted in groups or masses in woodland gardens, for screens or informal hedges, or on banks for erosion control. They have good tolerance for salty soils, so are often planted at seashore properties and along roadsides that are salted in winter. It is often used to stabilize areas with shifting sand dunes.
While bayberry shrubs fade somewhat into the background during the summer and autumn, they are valued for the novelty the gray berries afford to the winter landscape and for their ability to attract birds.
Bayberry is valued as being one of the fragrant plants of landscaping that do not rely on blooms 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.