By April Punsalan for The Island Connection
Wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), a common shrub growing along the coast, was considered one of the most important useful and medicinal plants in the 1800s. Despite it being an important medicinal plant in the 1800s, it is barely used for medicine today. I am not sure why or how it largely disappeared from the herbal world, but I am here to tell you, it deserves to resurface in popularity. Wax myrtle leaves are full of antimicrobial oils that are known to fight bacteria, fungi, and viruses. One of the main compounds, cineole, also found in eucalyptus leaves and known as eucalyptol, gives wax myrtle leaves a spicy and camphor-like smell. In addition to the antimicrobial oils, the leaves contain astringent tannins that help tighten and tonify the body. The antimicrobial and astringent properties of wax myrtle made it a popular remedy for dysentery (painful stomach cramps, diarrhea, and blood in the stool) in the 1800s. Also, it was a popular remedy for urinary tract infections and was believed to “clean out the kidneys.” An herbal tea, “tisane”, was often made from the leafy branches for enjoyment. I make wax myrtle tea several times throughout the year to enjoy with friends and family. To make a leaf infusion, remove 7-10 wax myrtle leaves from the woody stems (approximately two tablespoons) and steep in hot water for 10-15 minutes.
Wax myrtle’s astringent properties will make you thirsty, so have your water bottle nearby.
Make sure you are 100% positive of the identification before foraging wax myrtle. Look for a medium shrub with long, evergreen leaves (4-6 x long as wide) that are highly aromatic and have yellow resin dots on the underside of the leaf. You can easily find wax myrtle from August to December by looking for the female fruiting plants. The woody stems from the previous year’s growth will be covered with round, grayish blue fruit. Sometimes the fruit will persist on the shrub all winter. You can make a vast array of herbal products from wax myrtle fruit: candles, facial lotion, salves, lip balms, soap, and to top it off -a brown dye. I love teaching students in the Botanical Medicine Movement how to make a deeply moisturizing facial lotion from something they can easily forage.
Since making facial lotion can be tricky and requires some skill, I recommend getting to know the waxy fruit by making a candle this fall and winter. To learn how, watch our 6 minute “DIY Bayberry/ Wax Myrtle Candle” YouTube video found on our Yahola Herbal School channel. It does take a lot of fruit to make one candle, but it is well worth the time investment. The time spent foraging and in the kitchen is equally enjoyable. The end product-priceless-a beautiful, green bayberry candle that can bring light to the darkest winter night. It is no wonder why it is called the Christmas candle.
The next time you see a wax myrtle, crush a few leaves, close your eyes, and see what surfaces.