Plant Taxonomy of Bayberry Shrubs:
Because the plant adapts to a number of different soil conditions (in each of which its growth may be somewhat different) it's difficult to specify a height for it. I've seen it listed as possibly reaching 10 feet or more in height, but I'm familiar with it mainly as a bush that grows wild in the sand dunes near the ocean, where the dry conditions limit it to a smaller size.
Growth habit is rounded, and the branches fill in densely, providing some cover for wild birds even when few leaves still cling to the bush. The leathery, aromatic foliage has a slight sheen to it.
Bayberry shrubs are not grown for their flowers, which are insignificant. Rather, it is the berries that succeed the flowers that create interest in the plant. Although referred to colloquially as "berries," botanists call the fruit a "drupe."
Planting Zones for Bayberry Shrubs:
Sun and Soil Requirements:
Uses for Bayberry Shrubs:
While bayberry shrubs are delightful during the summer and autumn, they may be most valued for the novelty their gray berries afford to the winter landscape.
Speaking of winter, note that the salt tolerance of bayberry shrubs extends beyond tolerance to sea salt: use them in roadside plantings where other bushes might die from being tainted by all the road salt that the snowplows push onto your landscape!
Wildlife Attracted -- and Not Attracted -- to Bayberry Shrubs:
Because of the resin in their branches and the strong smell of their leaves, these bushes are deer-resistant shrubs.
But bayberry shrubs are plants that attract birds. If planted en masse, the resulting thicket, created by their dense branching patterns, will afford the wild birds some cover in winter. The gray berries, while not a preferred food source for most birds (their waxiness may not be very palatable), do serve as an emergency food source.
Care for Bayberry Shrubs:
Bayberry shrubs can spread by root-suckering (in sandy soils) the way forsythia bushes do, so you may need to remove new plants, occasionally, if you are not interested in having them blanket an area with a colony.
Other than that, these are very low-maintenance bushes. As nitrogen-fixers (see above), they produce fertilizer for themselves. You do not need to prune them often (if at all), since they are slow-growing bushes. In fact, you should take care to avoid any pruning that would ruin the form. If rejuvenation pruning is in order, take advantage of their root-suckering quality and prune them as you would prune overgrown lilacs, removing a third of the old growth each year for three successive years.
The fragrance of the leaves provides more benefits than you might think: besides repelling deer (see above), the smell seems to keep insect pests at bay.
It is rather unusual to encounter a bush with gray berries in the northeastern United States, so this feature of bayberry shrubs could certainly serve as a conversation starter when you're showing your landscape off to your gardening friends.
Moreover, bayberry is valued as being one of the fragrant plants of landscaping that do not rely on something as ephemeral as blooms for their aroma, but on their leaves. This means that you'll be able to enjoy the smell all summer and fall. As you go by the bush, press hard on a leaf; this will release the fragrance into the air.
More on Bayberry Shrubs:
I first encountered bayberry shrubs in what, for me, is hallowed ground: the sand dunes of Plum Island. No, not the Plum Island that will be familiar to Long Islanders (New York); I'm talking about the barrier island off the coast of northeastern Massachusetts, the site of this picture of eastern red cedar. Plum Island is a paradise for wild birds, being covered in thickets composed not only of bayberry but also such bushes as winterberry.
Note that there's no typo in the botanical name presented above: Myrica pensylvanica. Yes, that's like "Pennsylvania," but with just one N. Also note that the genus name is pronounced mi-RAHY-kuh, i.e., with the accent on the middle syllable. Do not confuse this plant with barberry bush.
Candle aficionados will recognize bayberries as the waxy source exploited by the early European settlers of New England to make fragrant candles.