When it comes to native plants or anything about gardens, I am still learning. Eamonn Leonard is my source for growing things. Coming to the coast as a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, he became a founding member of Coastal Wildscapes, a group dedicated to growing native gardens. He knows plants like I know birds. So, when it came time to write about wax myrtles, I asked him. He came through with all kinds of facts about the bush. It is incredible what this humble plant can do.
I like wax myrtles because painted buntings like them. Heck, all birds love this native bush. It is a dense shrub that protects birds from hawks. Buntings can fly out to feed on grass seeds and dash for cover when threatened. Here is what Mr. Leonard says about the bush: “I think it is a great plant that should be used in landscapes. It is especially a good alternative to the exotic privets, or Ligustrum folks use for hedging or screening out a view. There are dwarf varieties if the standard form is too large for the home landscape. It does take to hedging well. It’s great for providing cover for birds, as well as nesting locations and food.”
But there is so much more to this bush than just being a bird-friendly hedge. It’s a hearty plant. Wax myrtles can withstand high winds, heavy rains, and prolonged dry spells. They are also salt-tolerant.
Then, there are the leaves. Eamonn says these can also be used as an insect repellent. You can crush them in your hand and rub the oil on your skin. I tried it. It sort of worked, but it does have a pleasant clean scent.
The leaves can also be dried and used as a flavoring for soups and stews. They’ve been used as a medicine, too. The Choctaw boiled the leaves to treat fevers and severe dysentery.
Beyond the beneficial leaves, there’s the blue-grey berries. In the fall, the tree swallows swarm these myrtles. It is quite a sight to watch thousands of swallows swoosh in and out of the bushes along the causeway. It is not only the swallows that like the berries but people do too. They can be added to the brewing process to bring a unique flavor to craft beers.
What most people know about the wax myrtle is the berries produce wax for making bayberry candles. Our Southern wax myrtle does not have a lot of wax, but here is another tip from Mr. Leonard: “You gather the berries when fully ripe in the fall. You simmer the berries in water (not boiling them because that would release essential oils), then capture and clean the wax collected. I have learned that to make them less brittle you should use a 1:2 ratio of beeswax to myrtle wax.”
I had no idea the wax myrtle was so versatile. Nature knows what is best for us and provides the right connections for us — and the birds.