The utility plant of south Louisiana’s wetlands, and a major player in Camp Salmen’s woods, is the Southern Wax Myrtle or Bayberry (Myrica cerifera). It’s an evergreen that ranges in size from a large shrub to a small tree. They can be found in both salt marshes and Cypress swamps; all they need is a piece of slightly elevated, drained ground like a canal or bayou bank. Plus they grow in most any other environment in the Southeastern U.S.
Another undiscriminating trait is how it grows — any old way it can. They will do whatever it takes to reach the sunlight, even attaining grotesque shapes to work around the other plants in the forest. They can be found leaning way over toward an opening, or branching off in several directions to catch the sun here and there with clusters of leaves bushing out from the ends of their branches. Sometimes the tree can add to the beauty of Bayou Liberty by reaching over the water in a pleasing fashion. They also attain bizarre, Dr. Seuss-like shapes in the woods.
Besides its supreme ecological adaptability, another specialty of the plant is its wax, an aromatic coating on its berries, once harvested for candle making. Other parts of the plant have been used for medicine for an amazing variety of ailments — fevers, dysentery, convulsions, colic, diarrhea, palsy, bleeding gums, seizures and as a topical antibiotic. Animals eat them as food and depend on their digestive juices to strip away the wax to get at their yummy natural, nutritious goodness. They then poop out the seeds all over the forest and help spread the plant around.
Another unusual characteristic of the plant is that its many aromatic compounds adds to its flammablity. In case of wildfire it goes up in flames like the Hindenburg. Not to worry though, its root system stays safe underground and ready to spring back to allow the plant to re-grow and participate in another round of competition in the recovering forest.