you may ask?
Well, because, bayberry. It's all over the east coast. It's on a lot of islands. And I wanted my island for the Summerhood Island series to be an island that could be anywhere, or at least more places than specifically off the coast of southeastern MA that could be seen from Aquinnah if you put a quarter in the binoculars at the edge of the cliffs and looked to your right.
Yeah. That island. Only a little broader in scope.
So that's why I chose Bayberry out of all the names suggested to me for Jessie's island. And here's a little discourse on the bayberry plant. You don't have to read the whole thing. You may skim. You have my permission.
Waxing eloquent on wax myrtle
One of the most popular (and prolific) trees in the Lowcountry is the wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera). This aromatic shrub grows everywhere – behind the dunes line on beaches, in woods along the marsh edges and in the natural thickets that often surround our shopping centers and building lots. Since it is unusually hardy and will take salt, wind and heat, the wax myrtle has become an extremely popular landscaping ornamental. There is hardly a landscaping plan that omits the versatile myrtle, especially for high-abuse places such as parking lot entrances and along roadways.
The wax myrtle has as many names as it has uses, and a remarkable historical record. It is variously known as Sweet Myrtle, Sweet Bay, Bayberry, Waxberry, Wild Tea, Tea Box, Tallow Bush, Merkle, Mucklebush, Mickleberry and, last but not least, the Candleberry Tree. For centuries, Lowcountry cooks have been using the slender, pungently “sweet bay” leaves to flavor stews and broths.
Yet, if we lived a century or two ago, the myrtle would have a far greater significance to us than mere food flavoring. It was not given the name “wax” myrtle for nought. The tree’s berries provided the wax to make the bayberry candles so popular for their aroma.
If you get up close and personal to a wax myrtle right now, you’ll find that it is chock-filled with clumps of small, round, greyish-blue berries. It was from these berries, harvested in the fall, that the wax was made for candles. The berries were placed in boiling vats, and as the wax rose to the top, it was skimmed off and strained. This process was repeated again and again until a cake of bayberry wax was formed. Enormous amounts of bayberries were required to produce a single pound of wax.
In 1732, English naturalist Mark Catesby described the annual fall ritual of harvesting bayberries and making wax from the bush he named the “Narrow-leaved Candleberry Myrtle.”
Wrote Catesby, “In November and December, at which time the berries are mature, a man with his family will remove from his home to some island or sandbanks near the sea, where these trees most abound, taking with him kettles to boil the berries in. He builds a hut with palmetto leaves, for the shelter of himself and family while they stay, which is commonly three or four weeks.
“The man cuts down the trees, while the children strip off the berries into a porridge pot; and having put water to them, they boil them until the oil floats, which is skimmed off into another vessel. This is repeated until there remains no more oil. This, when cold, hardens to the consistency of wax, and is of a dirty green color. They then boil it again, and clarify it in kettles which gives it a transparent greenness.”
In olden times, candles were generally made from two types of material, tallow and beeswax. Those made from natural beeswax burned with a more pleasant odor and generally gave off a more stable light. Tallow candles were usually made from fat extracted from beef and mutton but had a lower melting point and burned faster. Bayberry candles were considered better than those made of tallow and were probably the most familiar type of candle used in colonial America.
English explorer John Lawson praised them, writing in 1700, “the Berry yields a wax that makes candles the most lasting and of the sweetest smell imaginable. Some mix half Tallow with this Wax, others use it without mixture; and these are fit for a Lady’s Chamber.”
The wax myrtle was also esteemed for its medicinal properties. Root bark from the tree was collected in fall and boiled in water, producing an astringent and stimulant thought to be both a headache remedy and a curative for scrofula, jaundice, diarrhea and dysentery. A tea made from the leaves was thought to relieve a backache and would also “clean out the kidneys” and “overcome chills.”
Bay leaves were also thought to be an excellent insect repellant. Leaves were placed under and over beef at slaughtering time to keep flies away. Branches were strewn around houses, chicken coops and in beds to repel fleas. Rich in tannin, they were also used for tanning leather during the Civil War.
All in all, the wax myrtle is a simply wonderful shrub. It grows in sand; it will take both sun or shade. It looks wonderful when it is pruned ornamentally and just as good when it is left to its own abandon. Birds love the tree, both for nesting and for its berries. It even smells good.
Of all the wonderful natural abundance we have here on our coast, the wax myrtle is right up at the top in my estimation.
Next time you smell the alluring scent of a bayberry candle, give the valiant wax myrtle an appreciative nod. It has been doing good duty to both man and nature for a long time.
Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.