One of the many joys of canine companionship is getting out of the house together and walking in wild places. Baxter gets rather bored with sidewalks and mailboxes, as do I, so I’m always looking for areas that have been untouched by subdivisions and big box stores. I like to give his nose something worth investigating and my eyes something worth seeing. It’s not an easy task in suburbia. One of the nearby parks doesn’t allow dogs on their walking path. Many of the beaches either prohibit dogs altogether, or they only allow them on-leash during the off-season. We’ve had to get creative, but one area we both like is a pine thicket across the street from our neighborhood.
It is not so much the pines that I love, although they do provide a peculiar kind of stillness, abundant shade, and a dense carpet of brown needles. The tree (or shrub) that borders the area, specifically Myrica cerifera, is much more intriguing for practical, medicinal, and magical uses. Its common names are the Southern Wax Myrtle, Southern Bayberry, Candleberry, and Tallow Shrub. Although they are everywhere along the southern Atlantic coastline, I didn’t grow up with them; so, I’ve enjoyed making their humble acquaintance.
At this time of year in mid-November, their branches are loaded with tiny, bluish-colored bayberries. I can’t resist running my hands over them, plucking a few, and inhaling the scent. They have a fresh, uplifting, evergreen aroma that is good for both the sinuses and the soul.
Colonial settlers found a practical use for them, as their waxy coating makes a smokeless and wonderfully aromatic candle. It’s a rather time-consuming process, unfortunately, since it takes about four pounds of bayberries to produce just one pound of wax. When you consider that a bayberry is only an eighth of an inch in diameter, the desire for candles had to be quite strong indeed.
The process went something like this: 1) Heat your painstakingly-harvested bayberries in water over an open fire to the scalding point. 2) Skim off the wax that rises to the surface. 3) Re-boil the skimmed wax to get rid of impurities. 4) Gather your candlewicks that you made from threads of flax, hemp, or whatever you could recycle. 5) Dip the wicks in the pure melted wax until the candles are the desired size. 6) Do that over and over again until you have enough candles for your household to get through the long winter nights. Are we having fun yet?
From a medicinal standpoint, bayberries have an astringent quality, meaning that they tighten tissues. I found several references that pointed to bayberry tea or powder as being helpful for spongy, bleeding gums. (I’m guessing the scurvy-plagued settlers really appreciated any remedy for that particular problem). Bayberry has also been used for uterine hemorrhaging and as a general tonic for the female reproductive organs. (Please note that these are just historical uses. I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV).
From a magical standpoint, bayberry corresponds to the element of earth and the planet Jupiter. That makes it ideal for money-drawing spells, good luck, harmony, and general well-being. The tradition of burning bayberry candles on New Year’s Eve to bring luck the following year reflects both the connection to Jupiter and the fact that the candles were treasured items to the colonists. Burning one all the way down was a kind of sacrifice.
Just being around the Southern Bayberry gives one a feeling of being supported and encouraged, or at least that is the energy I feel from them when Bax and I take our walks. I have rubbed the leaves for luck and written wishes on them. I have also carried the berries in my medicine pouch, placed them on my altar, used them in incense blends, and I’ve simply meditated with them.
Many times, the “medicine” I’ve needed most in my life has been readily available all around me in these rare pockets of undisturbed wilderness. When I stop to look, feel, listen, and really see with my heart, the trees and plants reveal themselves to me as valuable friends and allies on this journey through life.
© 2015 Jennifer R. Miller