Mystery Plant Settlers used berries to make candles By John Nelson USC Herbarium
All our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
--Shakespeare, Macbeth V.5.
Keep the study-hall candle on for a few minutes here while we investigate this mysterious bush.
Vigorous specimens can be small trees, but most of the time you’ll see this as a shorter rounded or irregularly-shaped shrub. It’s common and just about everywhere on the coastal plain, from New Jersey to Florida and Texas. The plants like damp soil, very commonly occurring on sand, or otherwise on more humus-rich, peaty sites. You’ll find it, often in dense groves, in swales and depressions behind the sand dunes at the beach, and in swamp forests and pocosins, and of course it is planted widely in yards as a shrub. This is an evergreen plant. The leaves are usually slender and pliable, and somewhat toothy on the edges, at least toward the tips. The upper leaf surface is generally dark green and smooth, in a rather standard sort of way…but it is the lower surface that is remarkable. Get out your hand lens and take a look at the lower side, which will feature thousands of tiny, rounded, golden glands, each one filled with very fragrant, clear oil. To get the full effect of the marvelous fragrance of these leaves, crunch up a small handful, and then breathe in the aroma – slowly – from your cupped hands. You’ll detect a strong, sweet fragrance, and it will probably remind you of the last time you walked into one of those holiday candle shops at the mall. Or, perhaps you’ve been surrounded by these plants in a natural setting on a warm, still day, when the sweet perfume wafting up can be quite strong. The plant produces dense clusters of tiny flowers up and down its gray stems. Following the flowers, abundant bluish-gray berries form, which hang on until the end of winter. The hard, rounded berries owe their color to a relatively dense layer of naturally-produced wax, which is bumpy and rough on the surface of the mature berry. (Interestingly, the berries, which would seem to be too dry and scratchy to make good wildlife food, are eaten eagerly by at least one bird species, the myrtle warbler.) The wax, like the foliage oil, is quite fragrant, containing many of the same aromatic compounds found in the yellow glands of the leaves. Early American settlers discovered that boiling these berries would remove the wax, which could then be variously strained and further refined, and used to make candles. The process is somewhat painstaking, if done in the traditional, old-time way, but yields an evenly-burning candle with plenty of fragrance.
Now Shakespeare wouldn’t have known this plant at all, as it is American. However, this species has gained popularity in Britain and other parts of Europe as an adaptable shrub for garden accents and for hedges, and of course, the fragrance can’t be beat. (Macbeth’s candle would probably have been one of those standard ones, made from beeswax or animal tallow.) (Photo by Linda Lee.)
[Answer: "Wax-myrtle,” “Bayberry," Morella cerifera]
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email email@example.com.