Vol. 12 Issue 2, Summer 2007
By Deanna Foster
[Note: While Bayberry is native to the U.S. and to eastern Virginia’s coastal areas, it is not native to Loudoun County. That said, it can be used for formal settings, such as yards, gardens, and other artificial landscapes, where it will be a welcome source of food for birds in winter.]
Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a beautiful shrub with an interesting multi-branched form and lovely dark green waxy leaves in summer. The berries appear in summer when the leaves are still on the shrub, but they do not ripen until early January when the leaves have fallen. For winter interest they have a very interesting branching structure with berries running in lines close to the branches.
When our winter snow and ice storms come and most of the natural food sources for our birds are covered or gone, one can easily watch those Bayberry shrubs fill with birds competing for the winter nourishment the berries offer. I have seen Chickadees, Cardinals, Tufted Titmouse, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, even the odd Eastern Bluebird plucking those berries from the shrub. Fortunately there is an abundance of berries on each plant, and the evidence of their worth is clear when every berry has disappeared after a few weeks. During that time you have the pleasure of watching all those beautiful birds and perhaps making their lives a little easier.
Northern Bayberry likes full sun in average to humus-rich soil, though it is able to take some shade. Mine are deprived of morning sun in their location at my house, and they are thriving. The books will tell you they take a good amount of moisture, but mine are well-drained and seldom watered in the summer.
The Bayberry has a lovely spicy scent as a bonus. It is subject to a bit of fungus spotting in August, as are so many plants in our humid climate, but this does not seem to affect the plant’s performance. As always I would suggest planting a smaller specimen as it will adjust more readily to its new surroundings.
Avoid plants that show evidence of being in the pot too long and have girdled roots. Be patient as you allow a year for your Bayberry’s roots to take hold, and absolutely allow enough room for its 5- to 6-foot height and spread. Do remember that every plant needs good moisture when first planted, because it will have a small root structure at that point. My Northern Bayberry shrubs reached full height and spread at five years and started producing berries in their second or third year.