One of the most underrated native shrubs is Bayberry, probably because it is so common in many areas. Bayberry has natural beauty with extreme hardiness and it’s also attractive to wildlife.
The leathery leaves of the plant carry a strong scent, much like the commercial bay leaves (not related) used to flavor sauces and stews. This strong aroma is actually one of the easiest keys in identifying and appreciating bayberry. The plant leaves are simple and alternate, and they 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.
Furthermore, Bayberry is actually tolerant of a variety of growing conditions and it also 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 plant is generally found in large groupings which are quite difficult to make your way through.
The Ripe bayberry seeds can be collected any time you find them on a plant. If you are collecting in the spring or fall, the seeds 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. You can sow the seeds thickly into the nursery beds and then cover with about 1cm of soil. You can mulch the plantings with eelgrass or finely shredded bark. Under normal condition 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 the bayberry seed during the winter, store the berries in a cool, dry place for cleaning and planting in the spring.
The fruit of bayberry plant may have little appeal to humans (outside of their use as a source of wax for scented bayberry candles) but they are really 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, most 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, ruffed grouse, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, tree swallows, eastern bluebirds and European starlings. It provides excellent nesting protection and nesting sites for songbirds, most especially when grown in large thickets.