Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bayberry in winter

The last few weeks have found me rather preoccupied, but fortunately I still get to botanize vicariously through my friends' photos. Coming to us from Salt Fork State Park is the following picture.

..................Photo Kathy Mock

My friend Kathy had been birding there and wondered about the identity of this plant with blueish berries. She was excited to see a good number of Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding on the shrub.

.....................Photo Kathy Mock
The habitat shot: note the nearby cattails, a sure-fire precursor of wetlands. Although this plant is only native to the sandy or boggy areas of northeast Ohio, it all added up in my mind, as Northern Bayberry, Morella pensylvanica (formerly Myrica pensylvanica)

Bayberry is better known from the northeastern states- like Vermont- where I was first introduced to the clean "winter" scent of bayberry. The berries are heavily coated with a wax-like substance which is rendered into fragrant candles.

These attractive plants have dark glossy foliage, great for adding fragrance to arrangements and wreaths. The only reason I can possibly fathom for not owning several bayberries is the fact I've never seen them for sale! Just looking at these photos has me absolutely scheming to find some in 2011.

.........................Photo by Dave Lewis

And what about those birds Kathy saw? They were flocks of Yellow-rumped warblers, formerly called Myrtle Warblers. Wax-myrtle, a close relative to bayberry, is another irresistible member of the Myricaceae family. Yellow-rumps are one of the very few birds, and the only warblers, able to digest the waxy substance on these berries. Long noted for feeding extensively on the berries throughout the cold winter months, this ability may provide an edge over other warbler species and allow the normally insectivorous birds a more northern winter range.

And how did that bayberry patch get in Salt Fork? It is not likely to have been planted, as most folks don't landscape their wetlands. A better guess: the Yellow-rumps planted this winter Eden from seeds passed through their digestive tracks. I wholly approve!


  1. Morella pensylvanica is an endangered species in Ohio, only being currently found in two counties; Portage and Summit. Salt Fork state park is in Guernsey, quite a ways south from its small range in Ohio. Perhaps your friend found a new population of a very rare plant in Ohio? Regardless, very cool!

  2. Yes, this patch is a bit out of the normal range, and so I had checked with the Salt Fork botanical expert Jason Larson.

    Jason is at Ohio University working on some degrees, piled higher and deeper, I think.
    He seemed well aware of that patch by the lodge, but was dubious of its origins.

    Thanks for the comment! Cheryl

  3. Hi, Cheryl!

    Jason here...

    The bayberries (Morella pensylvanica)at Salt Fork, in my opinion, are an introduced population. I believe they were planted as landscaping at the time the lodge, golf course, etc. were built in the late 1960's or early 1970's. It is also conceivable that they grew from a wayward seed deposited by a bird, but the only native populations (endangered) are located in NE Ohio and it is not a common landscaping plant. Many of the bushes are very large, with thick stems, and look rather old. I have not seen this plant growing at any of the old homestead sites in the park.

    As far as my research surveys of Salt Fork indicated, it is only found growing in the park along the edges of NR road #3, right before the lodge and on the adjacent side road leading down to the cabins.

    The cattails seen in Kathy's photos are from the ditches directly below the the bottom of the to the road.

    The bushes are gorgeous and are always loaded with berries. Nice to see the yellow-rumps eating the fruit. This might be a good stake-out spot for this often hard-to-find January species!

  4. Hi Cheryl!
    We're thinking of you and Randy!
    Oh my...thanks for using one of my pics! I owe ya...

  5. I knew this must be a relative of wax myrtle the moment I read your description of yellow-rumps eating the berries - we have tons of wax myrtle here in coastal Georgia and it is always full of yellow-rumps. In fact, I just learned the other day that that's how they got the name "Myrtle"!

  6. Hey Jason, Thanks for weighing in! No one knows Salt Fork like you!

    Dave- No, thanks... I owe you! And appreciate your lovely photos! People should follow the side bar to your blog-

    Rebecca- That is a sight I would love to see. I could use a little coastal Georgia about now!

  7. I didn't know of the wax-digesting ability of yellow-rumped warblers, as such.
    I do know that I can usually find them happily munching the poison-ivy berries (also wax-covered!)
    in my yard. They and the downy woodpeckers make quite a feast of it!