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Wax Myrtle

Description

T he wax myrtle belongs to the wax myrtle family (Myricaceae), and is characterized by the aromatic glands found on the surfaces of its leaves. These glands release a sweet odor when crushed. The wax myrtle is an evergreen shrub or small tree (0.3-7 m Wax myrtletall), with nearly hairless twigs. Leaves are wedge-shaped, often leathery, and toothed, and they are up to 8 cm long and 2 cm wide. The plant is dioecious (flowers contain male and female reproductive parts), and its flowers lack petals and sepals and are arranged in a catkin (a cluster of flowers on a slender, often droopy, spike). The fruit is a nutlet that turns purple at maturity and is covered with a waxy substance.

Habitat and Biology

Wax myrtle is found from Virginia to Florida and in Alabama and Mississippi; however, a species of Myrica occurs in every coastal state of the United States. This species is mainly confined to the coastal areas, but locally it may extend a few miles inland. The shrub inhabits the moist, sandy soils of maritime and upland communities.

Existing populations of wax myrtle are maintained through asexual reproduction (reproducing vegetatively), and new sites are established by sexual reproduction. Flowers bloom during spring, typically first emerging in April. The fruits mature in the summer, releasing their seeds in early fall (October). Seeds germinate the following growing season, and the seedlings grow rapidly and form thickets through vegetative propagation.

High leaf photosynthetic rates, photosynthetic branches, an evergreen leaf habit, and the ability to reproduce vegetatively enable the shrub to rapidly expand in the sandy soils characteristic of coastal environments. The species also maintains a high level of productivity on nutrient poor soil by increasing nutrient availability in the rhizosphere. On soils low in nitrogen, the actinorhizal shrub forms a facultative symbiosis with Frankia (bacteria), fixing nitrogen needed for plant uptake. Wax myrtle develops cluster roots (aggregation of rootlets) when grown in low phosphorus soil. The cluster roots enhance the plant’s ability to retain and absorb phosphorus in nutrient poor soil.

Species Significance

The wax-coated nutlets are eaten by many species of birds, including the insect-eating tree swallow. Since colonial times, wax myrtle foliage has been used ornamentally, and the waxy coating on the fruits has been used to make candles and scented soaps. Fresh and dried leaves are used as flavorings, and leaves are also grated or moistened seeds are used as condiments.

References

Louis, I., S. Racette, and J.G Torrey. 1990. Occurrence of cluster roots on Myrica cerifera L. (Myricaceae) in water culture in relation to phosphorus nutrition. New Phytologist 115:311-317.

Martin, A.C., H.S. Zim, and A.L. Nelson. 1951. American wildlife and plants: A guide to wildlife food habits. Dover Publications Inc., New York, NY.

Peterson, L.A. 1977. A field guide to edible wild plants of eastern and central North America. Peterson Field Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY.

Radford, A.E., H.E. Ahles, and C.R. Bell. 1968. Manual of the vascular flora of the Carolinas. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.

Young, D.R. 1992. Photosynthetic characteristics and potential moisture stress for the actinorhizal shrub, Myrica cerifera (Myricaceae), on a Virginia barrier island. American Journal of Botany 79(1):2-7.

Young, D.R., G. Shao, and J.H. Porter. 1995. Spatial and temporal growth dynamics of barrier island shrub thickets. American Journal of Botany 82(5):638-645.



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