Bayberry is one of our most underrated native shrubs, possibly because it is so common in many areas. This commonness shouldn’t cause us to overlook its natural beauty, its extreme hardiness and its attractiveness to wildlife.
The leathery leaves of this 1-2 m (3.3-6.6 ft) tall shrub carry a strong scent, much like the commercial bay leaves (not related) used to flavor sauces and stews. This strong aroma is one of the easiest keys to identifying and appreciating bayberry. The leaves are simple and alternate, and often stay on the plant late into the year. On the female plants, the hard, grey berries with their waxy covering remain throughout the winter. A close relative, sweet gale (Myrica gale) is also found in this province, but lacks the distinct, waxy berries.
Bayberry is tolerant of a variety of growing conditions and thrives in the harsh, salt sprayed areas along the north shore. Though it is well suited to dry areas behind dune systems or old fields, it can also be found in open, marshy areas and wet woodlands. Bayberry is generally found in large groupings which are quite difficult to make your way through.
Ripe seeds of bayberry can be collected any time you find them on a plant. If you are collecting in the spring or fall, they can be cleaned and planted right away. The waxy coating is easy to remove if you rub them against a screen, such as a fine metal food strainer. Within minutes you can remove the water impermeable coating from hundreds of seeds. Sow seeds thickly into nursery beds and cover with about 1cm (.39″) of soil. Mulch the plantings with eelgrass or finely shredded bark. Germination usually occurs after the second winter and the young seedlings should be transplanted to a wider spacing after the first year. If you collect seed during the winter, store berries in a cool, dry place for cleaning and planting in the spring.
The fruit of bayberry may have little appeal to humans (outside of their use as a source of wax for scented bayberry candles) but they are excellent food sources for a variety of wildlife species. The common yellow-rumped warbler used to be called the myrtle warbler. Myrtle is another name for bayberry and is an important source of food for this species, especially during the spring and fall migrations. You’ll often find yellow-rumped warblers late into the fall and early winter along the dune systems where bay grows. The berries are also eaten by evening grosbeaks, gray catbirds, ruffed grouse, tree swallows, brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds and European starlings. It provides excellent nesting protection and nesting sites for songbirds, especially when grown in large thickets.
This species fortunately needs little in the way of conservation, since it is quite common in the province. It can and should be used more often in landscape plantings and restoration of dry, degraded sites. It is an excellent plant to use between trees and larger shrubs in a complex, multi-species windbreak or shelter-belt, as well as in wildlife plantings around homes. Once established, the roots produce suckers, thus creating a dense area that is both fragrant and attractive. Since there are both male and female plants, the seedlings you plant will probably include some of each sex. To get the best results, plant in groupings of five or more to give you better odds. One male plant will fertilize many nearby females.