Sunday, March 6, 2016

Myrtles All Around

From our second story window, we have a good view of the winter bird feeders. Of course, we planned it that way. I can sit at the kitchen window with a pair of binoculars and watch the warblers come and go. We have year-round birds too, but I only see the warblers in winter.  Pine warblers are the most common, and occasionally we get a visit from the yellow-rumped warblers.

Also known as myrtle warblers, these small black and white birds with yellow splashes are winter residents in Georgia. They breed further north of us. In the summer they eat insects, which is typical for warblers. In the winter they will look for and eat winter-persistent berries, such as junipers, poison ivy, and those of our native wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), hence the name ‘myrtle warbler.’

I would plant this shrub for the birds alone if need be, but it has other wonderful characteristics to recommend it besides its berries. Wax myrtle is a large shrub native to the Coastal Plain of Georgia, although it has spread into the Piedmont area, perhaps by birds or human intervention, and it grows wild in the woodland edges of yards in my neighborhood now.

Two of them were in my yard when we moved in and one was a female. Only females have the beautiful blue-gray berries that the warbler loves. Other birds eat them too, such as Carolina wrens. The berries have historically been used to make candles, especially the berries of the northern species known as bayberry (Morella pensylvanica). Early settlers would boil the fruit and collect the wax that floated to the top of the pan to make candles.

Ready-to-eat berries of wax myrtle (Morella cerifera)

Wax myrtle is an evergreen shrub which makes it desirable for privacy, winter interest and as cover for nesting birds. The leaves are mildly aromatic and an unusual shade of olive green. Deer usually only browse the most tender foliage, leaving the older leaves alone. You can use it as a large shrub or it can be pruned up to resemble a small tree.

Male flowers of wax myrtle (Morella cerifera)
For those in coastal areas, you probably already know that wax myrtle is tolerant of brackish water, sandy soils and salt spray. It also helps to improve soil conditions. The roots of the plant form nitrogen-fixing root nodules similar to legumes. When you count up all the pluses of this plant, you can see why it’s worth having, especially if you’re in its native range.

As for me, I’ll enjoy the ones I have and the warblers that stop by to visit. Whether it’s myrtle shrubs or myrtle warblers, I’m glad to have them around.


  1. Saw a beautiful specimen at a native plant nursery last week. Love them.

  2. Your photos are fantastic! (Not only in this post, but the others as well.)

    I don't think wax myrtle grows as far north as where I am...but I have been toying with the idea of adding bayberry (a relative, I believe). I definitely want more shrubs and berry producers. :)