Bayberry, also known as wax myrtle, waxberry, or candelberry, is both a shrub and a tree. All members of the bayberry family are classified botanically as Myricaceae, and many varieties are found all over the world, including Japan, South America, the West Indies, the United Kingdom, and in the United States.
American bayberry (Myrica cerifera) is a shrub that grows 3–8 ft (1–2.4 m) high. It is found in eastern North America, in marshes and bogs near sandy Atlantic coastal areas, as well as in similar areas along the shores of the Great Lakes. American bayberry is the variety most often mentioned by herbalists.
American bayberry and its British Isles cousin, English bog myrtle, are very alike in appearance, and grows to a similar height. Foliage is evergreen and consists of knife-blade shaped shiny leaves that have small spots on them. When crumpled in one's hand, bayberry leaves and its bark produce a pleasant, balsamic aroma. However, they have a very bitter, astringent taste. The small berries are in globular clusters at stem junctions, crusted with a greenish-white waxy substance sprinkled with small black flecks. The exterior of bayberry root bark is mottled, with smooth reddish-brown cork underneath.
Both American bayberry and English bog myrtle, besides sharing a similar appearance, have similar medicinal qualities. Like all bayberry varieties, they are classified as astringent herbs. Some evidence suggests that these herbs have antimicrobial capabilities, in that they are able to prevent the development of pathogenic activity from microbes, and are useful in regulating mucus in the body.
Both varieties' bark and roots contain starch, lignin, gum, albumen, tannic and gallic acids, astringent resin, a red coloring substance, a vaporous oil, and an acid similar to saponin. Powdered bayberry root is useful as a bowel astringent in the treatment of diarrhea and colitis, a soothing and helpful gargle for the common cold or a sore throat, and as a douche in the treatment of leukorrhea, an abnormal white or yellow mucoid discharge from the vagina or cervix. In the Herbal Materia Medica, bayberry root bark is classified as an astringent, a circulatory stimulant, as well as a diaphoretic, a remedy which dilates superficial capillaries and induces perspiration, sometimes used to reduce fevers.
The berries of both American bayberry and English bog myrtle, when boiled in water, produce myrtle wax, which is composed of stearic, palmitic, myristic, and oleaic acids. This is used in making bayberry-scented soaps and bayberry candles, which are fragrant, more brittle than bees' wax candles, and are virtually smokeless. Four pounds of berries produce approximately one pound of wax. A briskly stimulating shaving cream was also made from this bayberry wax.
The wax's modern medicinal uses were first discovered and came into use in 1722, and included the making of surgeon's soap plasters. The water that the berries were boiled in during wax extraction, when boiled down to an extract, has been used in the North Country of England and Scotland for centuries as a treatment for dysentery. Narcotic properties are also attributed to bayberry wax.
In A Modern Herbal, that the leaves of English bog myrtle were commonly used in France to induce both menstruation and abortion.
In China, bayberry leaves are infused to make a tea which is used both to relieve stomach problems, and as a cordial, which is a stimulating medicine or drink.
A mouthwash particularly useful in inhibiting hallitosis can be made from either the powdered root or leaves.
Bayberry bark has traditionally been used to tan leather and dye wool.
Bayberry branches have been used in lieu of hops in the fermentation of gale beer, popular in northern England, and reported to have more than the usual "thirstquenching" ability.
Bayberries can be ground to use as spice, or added to broths.
In the West Indies, Pimenta acris, commonly called wild cinnamon or bayberry, is used in making both bay rum and oil of bayberry.
M. pennsylvanica's root can be used to induce vomiting.
The Brazilian species, Tabocas combicurdo, is described in A Modern Herbal as a "pick-me-up."
Bayberry preparations are made by collecting root bark in late fall or early winter, drying thoroughly, and either pulvarizing into a powder or chopping the bark. It should be stored in a tightly sealed containers, away from light.
A decoction or tea is prepared by adding a teaspoonful of powdered bayberry bark to a cup of cold water and bringing this to a boil. If using chopped, not powdered, bark, the decoction is simmered. This tea is then left to steep for 15–20 minutes before drinking. It may be taken up to three times a day for a limited period of time, as chronic use at this dosage could damage a person's kidneys and liver. The same preparation can be used as a gargle for sore throat.
Tincture of bayberry preparations are also available in some locales. Usual dosage is one-half teaspoonful in water.
As noted previously, English bog myrtle has historically been shown as having characteristics capable of inducing abortion. Its leaves, in nature, also have a poisonous, volatile oil present, which can be removed by boiling. Though no studies were found indicating the same capabilities for American bayberry, because of their many similarities, it should be assumed that neither English bog myrtle nor American bayberry leaves should be ingested in their natural, unprepared state. Additionally, aforementioned dosages of a bayberry decoction or tea should not be taken on a chronic basis, as damage to the kidneys and liver could occur.
Powdered bayberry root, if inhaled, can cause convulsive episodes of both sneezing and coughing.
Several varieties of the bayberry family are used as emetics, which are agents used to induce vomiting, and can also cause nausea.
To date, no reported interactions with either food, drug, or other herbal preparations have been found.
Grieve, M. and C.F. Leyel Barnes. A Modern Herbal: The Medical, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folklore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees With All of Their Modern Scientific Uses. Barnes and Noble Publishing, 1992.
Hoffman, David and Linda Quayle. The Complete Illustrated Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies. Barnes and Noble Publishing, 1999.
Thayer, Henry. Fluid and Solid Extracts. Geo.C. Rand & Avery, 1866.