Sunday, January 2, 2022

Wax myrtle: an under-used Florida native

The female wax myrtles carry a heavy
load of berries that feed the winter birds.

Wax myrtle (Morella cerifera formerly Myrica cerifera) is an easy-to-grow evergreen shrub or small tree that typically grows to 10-15’ tall and 8-10’ wide, but sometimes it grows to 20’ tall or more. It's native to all of Florida, even The Keys, and naturally occurs in a variety of habitats including edges of wetlands, river margins, sand dunes, pine barrens, hillsides, and upland forests. Species epithet "cerifera" means wax-bearing.

This species is dioecious (male and female flowers borne in catkins on separate plants). Female plants are preferred in the landscape because they produce the fruit to feed the birds, particularly migrating birds during the winter. Of course, at least one male plant is needed in the neighborhood to facilitate pollination of the female flowers.

Like many members of the myrtle family Myricaceae, both the leaves and the fruit are aromatic. The glossy leaves  are 3-5” long and are dotted with tiny yellow resin glands. Leaves, particularly the new growth, emit the distinctive bayberry fragrance when crushed. Flowers are fragrant but are not showy, but the flowers on male plants, dull yellow catkins about 1” long, are easily seen. Flowers bloom in late winter and pollinated female flowers develop to become blue-gray fruits (drupes) in late summer to fall, with persistence through winter. Each fruit has an aromatic, waxy coating. Because of this resin, this plant is highly flammable.

This shrub is similar to southern bayberry (M. caroliniensis), which is native to the Panhandle region of Florida and some other central peninsular counties in north and central Florida. The scentless bayberry (M. inodora) is native to the Panhandle counties There is a dwarf wax myrtle variety that only grows to about six feet tall that is sometimes separated out as a different species (M. pusilla). The northern bayberry (M. pensylvanica) is native from the Carolinas north to Canada and is the traditional source of bayberry candle wax.

In the Landscape

The fast-growing, evergreen wax myrtles can serve
as a dense, low-maintenance screening in the landscape.

Wax myrtle is a fast-growing, versatile shrub or small tree that can be grown in full sun or partial shade. It's drought tolerant, wind tolerant, salt tolerant, flood tolerant, fire tolerant, deer resistant, and tolerant of poor soils because it fixes nitrogen in its symbiotic relationship with an actinomycetes bacteria at twice the rate of a typical legume. It will grow in a wide range of soil conditions ranging from acidic to alkaline and from edges of wet areas to dry xeric uplands. It tends to sucker and in some cases the suckers can form at some distance from the mother plant. 

The evergreen habit of these shrubs means that they are a good choice for screening alone or mixed with other shrubs. Because of their quick growth and suckering habit, the screening becomes dense in only a few years. They tolerate trimming if necessary. A wax myrtle screen offers good cover and food for wildlife. In addition to the fruit for the winter birds, it is the larval food source for the banded hairstreak (Satyrium calanus) and the red-banded hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops) butterflies.

Wax myrtles play a number of important roles in the local
ecosystem from enriching the soil through nitrogen fixation
to being a larval food source for some hairstreak butterflies
as these eaten leaves indicate.

Wax myrtles are an excellent choice for large rain gardens, bioswales or edges of seasonal retention ponds. Unlike other climates, Florida's rain garden plants need to be both flood tolerant and drought tolerant because of our 7-month dry season. Read my article for more information on rain gardens in Florida.

Wax myrtles can be used as an understory shrub at the edges of wooded areas and as part of groves built around stand-alone trees in the landscapes. Their ability to fix nitrogen improves the soil for the whole area.

In natural areas, wax myrtles grow back quickly after fires and occur naturally in fire-prone habitats. But, in the home landscape, these shrubs are potential fire hazards because the leaves, stems and branches contain flammable, aromatic compounds, so do not plant them in areas near fire pits or near barbeque sites in your landscape. And in a fire-wise landscape, keep these shrubs at least 30 feet away from buildings.

Wax myrtles are readily available from FANN members and you can find native nurseries that have this plant in stock or find a native nursery near you on their website:

After planting this shrub, provide constant moisture for several weeks or longer in the dry season. Once established in the landscape, it requires no additional irrigation and no other general maintenance except to trim it back if necessary.

Wax myrtles are a great addition for your Florida native yard. Let's make native plants the new normal in Florida.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

For more information:

- The species profile on the FNPS site with a link to native nurseries that have it in stock:

The USDA & US Forest Service Fire Effects Information System page on Morella cerifera:

I originally wrote this plant profile for the FNPS Palmetto Magazine.

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