On Gardening

On Gardening: Southern wax myrtle

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceMarch 1, 2013 

Over the last few weeks, the large Southern wax myrtle outside my office has come alive with a feeding frenzy of birds. I’m paying close attention, because the feeding has been incredible.

The Southern wax myrtle is known botanically as Morella cerifera. (The name has been changed from Myrica cerifera, if for no other reason than to keep you on your toes.) Though called the Southern wax myrtle, it is native from Texas up the Eastern seaboard to New Jersey. This gives it a cold hardiness rating of zones 7-10, which encompasses the Piedmont and eastern North Carolina.

As a native plant, it scores a perfect 10. The small blue berries feed about 40 species of birds. The ones that are feasting as I write are the yellow-rumped warblers. At one time they were known as myrtle warblers, and I can see why.

The southern wax myrtle is also the host plant for the red-banded hairstreak butterfly. This is one of the most beautiful butterflies in the garden, but few gardeners in my seminars have ever seen a hairstreak. I challenge you to watch your garden this year and identify some of the native hairstreak butterflies. Hairstreaks like the red-banded slowly move their hind wings up and down while feeding and even at rest. The tails give the appearance of a set of moving antennae with an eye. This draws any predator’s attention away from the real head.

In the landscape, you could not ask for a better small tree to act as a privacy screen around a porch, patio, deck or garden bath or to soften harsh walls. Coastal residents are always looking for plants tolerant of salt spray, and wax myrtles are among the best.

It can grow to more than 30 feet tall, but I most commonly see them in the 15- to 20-foot range. The foliage is evergreen, and the white to grey multiple trunk structure is a landscape asset. The Southern wax myrtle is almost always unisexual or dioecious. In other words, there are male plants and female plants.

At the Columbus Botanical Garden, our 25-acre forest is full of them, creating a real haven of nature. Though I love the berries for the birds, the waxy fruit was once boiled and used to make bayberry candles.

Spring planting season is starting its slow creep northward. The Southern wax myrtle is a wonderful choice.

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