Northern Bayberry: A Native Shrub for the Sunny Garden

Finally, buds are swelling.  Walking through Marjorie’s Garden with my morning coffee, I pause to inspect a red elder’s opening buds, tight clusters of purple flower buds surrounded by embryonic leaves.  They look like miniature heads of purple broccoli.

I stop next to inspect the Northern bayberries for signs of winter-kill and find none.  Soon I will not be able to walk by these shrubs without crushing a leaf between my fingers to savor its spicy scent.  This is why we planted them, and for the bold texture and dark green of their summer leaves, and for the waxy, bayberry-scented berries that cluster along the stems of the female plants.

Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a shrub native from Newfoundland to Maryland, reliably evergreen at the southern end of its range, semi-evergreen or deciduous in the north. It grows wild along the rocky Maine coast where its suckering habit forms immense colonies of windswept, salt-sprayed plants that grow only two feet high.  In cultivation it is often used in poor sandy soils where few other plants will grow and where it remains relatively small, yet in richer soils it can grow over six feet tall.  Wherever it grows, it demands full sun.

All parts of northern bayberry are aromatic when crushed.  Its waxy gray berries, still used to scent candles, are produced in abundance along the young stems of female plants in fall and often persist through winter.  A gray-green dye can be made from the lustrous, leathery, green leaves.

Northern bayberry is an important wildlife plant.  The fruits are a preferred food of chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, tree swallows, catbirds, bluebirds, grouse, and others. Chestnut-sided warblers nest in New England bayberry thickets while yellow-rumped warblers fatten up on bayberry fruits at stopovers in fall migration.  Bayberry thickets also provide nesting sites for songbirds, offering excellent protection from raccoons and other nest predators.

For a striking year-round combination, the gardener can interplant northern bayberry with one of New England’s native roses, either the Carolina rose (Rosa carolina) or Virginia rose (R. virginiana).  The dark green foliage of bayberry makes an excellent foil for the simple pink flowers, deep red autumn leaves, and bright red hips of these roses.  I cannot take credit for this design, however, as it is a common sight along the coast of Maine.

Whenever I think of bayberry, I recall the Cape Cod garden of landscape architect Patricia Crow where an informal five-foot-high hedge of bayberry lines both sides of a long winding drive.  In front of these plants or in gaps between them, bayberry’s strong evergreen foliage serves as a foil for the lilac flowers of butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’), and the bold-textured flower clusters of oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia).  In late summer, fruits of American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) add a splash of bright red to the scene while seed heads of the daisies, left for the birds, enhance the textural beauty of the planting.  The white-flowering cultivar of swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata ‘Ice Palace’, brightens a section of the hedgerow while attracting a host of pollinators.

Writing about bayberry also brings to mind a late summer hike along the rugged coast of  Vinalhaven, an island off the Maine coast, where I found bayberry and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) growing together.  The dark red pyramidal fruit clusters of sumac surrounded by the bold bright green of bayberry foliage formed an image impossible to forget.

I want to grow bayberry with another native shrub, the highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum).  Several highbush blueberries already have their share of the vegetable garden’s beds where they are managed for fruit production, but in my plan the berries of both would be left for the chipmunks, squirrels, and birds and we would harvest the beauty of autumn foliage, the deep reds and bright yellows of highbush blueberry leaves enhanced by bayberry’s shining green leaves.

Speaking of Highbush Blueberries

If this is your year to start growing highbush blueberries, you don’t want to miss out on the online highbush blueberry and asparagus plant sale to benefit UMaine Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener Volunteers Program. Participants in this sale can purchase three high quality blueberry plants (2 different varieties) and/or 10 high quality asparagus crowns (‘Jersey Supreme’).

Oak-leaf hydrangeas fill a gap in the bayberry hedge.

Bayberry provides the perfect foil for the bright red fruits of American cranberrybush viburnum.

Shasta daisies, oak-leaf hydrangeas, and butterfly bush all provide color and textural contrast to the bold green foliage of bayberry.

The flowers of ‘Ice Palace’, a white-flowered cultivar of swamp milkweed, are a bright spot along the bayberry hedge in Patricia Crow’s Cape Cod garden.

Participants will receive a take-home packet of growing instructions as well as expert advice via email for growing these plants at every stage. Your plants will be available for pickup at one of eight UMaine Cooperative Extension county locations on Saturday, May 18th. For more information or to place an order, visit http://umaine.edu/gardening/master-gardeners/benefit/.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)