Wax myrtle has many attributes

Published February 6, 2007

Wax myrtle, Myrica cerifiera, is a frost hardy, multi-trunked, evergreen shrub that may be pruned into a small, single-trunked tree. It provides excellent cover from predators, nest sites and food for birds.

As a garden plant it can be pinched or tip-pruned to form a dense bush useful in both wetlands and dry sandy soils from the sandhills to pine flatwoods to the damp coastal plain and marshes throughout Florida in zones 7 to 11.

The ancient bayberry family, Myricaceae, has only three genera with some 50 species globally. They were more widespread 100-million years ago during the late Cretaceous period. Only three species of one genus is now found in Florida.

Since swamp candleberry, M heterophyla, and odorless bayberry, M. inodora, occur naturally only in the Florida Panhandle, the local species is usually southern bayberry, also called wax myrtle.

In form, wax myrtle is a multi-stemmed, densely leafed shrub with a spreading crown and often leaning trunks. Its lifespan is less than 50 years but as it usually sends out colonial root suckers the thicket could rejuvenate itself much longer. Left unpruned, the height can reach 20 feet, but most gardeners prefer to prune it as a smaller shrub for a privacy screen and to lure birds, particularly migratory warblers in winter.

Leaves are alternate, 1 to 5 inches long and narrow but a bit wider at the tip. Leaves are bluntly toothed at the apex with green top surfaces and slightly rusty undersides. When crushed they are aromatic. Original colonists gathered the bluish-green, wax covered drupe (berry) to make delicately fragrant candles. In spring the tiny flowers are small and brownish. Bark is smooth, gray and thin.

Soil conditions can be rich in organic humus or sandy so long as it is acidic with a pH of 5.5 to 7. Wax myrtle will adapt to even alkaline soil and needs no irrigation after it becomes established.

Along with being hardy, wax myrtle is also salt tolerant and resistant to most plant diseases. It can take full sun or part shade exposure. The Extension Service in Lecanto, 527-5700, has an informative fact sheet you can pick up or download from the Internet.

Companion plants include weeping, yaupon and Schelling's holly; all forms of Ilex vomitoria; coontie, Zamia plumila; Simpson's stopper, Myrcianthes fragrans; beautyberry, Callicarpa americana; saw palmetto, Serenoa repens; and a host of wildflowers.

For the butterfly gardener, wax myrtle is the host plant for the caterpillar of the red-banded hairstreak that breeds throughout the state. Caterpillars are baby butterflies or sometimes moths. To see a photo of this caterpillar, to 0.6 inches long, check out Florida's Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants by Marc Minno from the library.

This caterpillar also eats leaves of oaks and the exotic, Category 1, plant pest Brazilian pepper, Schinus trebinthifolius. Contact Joan Lippman, 527-4300, of the Citrus Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society to join the Pepper Busters who volunteer to help remove this invasive from our community. Learn more about native plants at the FLAPS monthly meetings on the fast Tuesday of the month from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Beverly Hills Lions Club, 72 Civic Circle.

Whether a gardener wants to attract birds or butterflies, needs a privacy screen or wants the fragrance of the leaves, wax myrtle is an ideal plant for a natural Florida garden.

Editor's note: This weekly article is provided by Jane Weber, professional gardener, grower, consultant, designer and environmentalist. Visit her Certified Florida Yard and Backyard Wildlife Habitat, 5019 W Stargazer Lane, Dunnellon. Call (352) 465-0649.