Wax Myrtle

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Delta Journal
by Bob Thomas

The wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) is one of the most common shrubby trees in southern Louisiana. It has figured prominently in the development of our rich cultural heritage.

The leaves are very resinous and aromatic when crushed. The fruit of the wax myrtle are small wax coated berries growing along the stems. Forty species of birds, including the Yellow-rumped Warbler (formerly aptly named Myrtle Warbler), are known to feed on the fruit.

Wax myrtles, or bayberries as they are called up North (Alexandria and above!), were responsible for one of the first recorded local exports to Europe. Early wax-men, or ciriers, boiled the berries and stems, skimmed wax off the water, and produced bayberry candles. Favored for their aroma and persistence, this local product soon became popular throughout the Western World, especially among royalty. One must remember that before air conditioning and clean, running water, life could get pretty smelly, so people used many techniques to live well in their odoriferous surroundings. With the high demand for bayberry candles, wax myrtle was cultivated, thus becoming one of the earliest agricultural products of those arriving from Europe.

Another use of wax myrtle was even more creative and exists to this day. Blue crabs grow in size by shedding their hard outer shells. When freshly shed, their shells are soft and they are extremely vulnerable, so they seek shelter from predators. Early settlers (and locals today) took advantage of this by cutting the thick, shrubby growth-forms of wax myrtles and placing them in estuaries. Blue crabs that are about to shed crawl into safe places, like these branches, to avoid predation. Fishermen lift the trees out of the water and harvest the soft-shelled delicacies!

Wax myrtles are now extremely popular as landscaping shrubs, so our winter invasion of Yellow-rumped Warblers have plenty of places to dine.

Also published in Delta Journal, The Times Picayune, October 18, 1989.