Wildlife turn to wax myrtle berries in winter
Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director
Winter is here in Wakulla County. While it is not as severe as upstate New York or Montana, there is a noticeable difference from six months ago.
The local birds and animals are aware of the difference more keenly than the human residence, mostly because of the reduced volume of available food.
Much of the native vegetation is dormant during this season, so certain selections are especially attractive to wildlife now.
One good choice is the wax myrtle, a native Florida plant. It is a small tree or large shrub which can be grown anywhere in the state and can produce copious volumes of berries which remain on the tree during winter.
The wax myrtle trees are members of the Myrica plant genus, a Greek word for fragrance. The approximately 50 members of this genus are found in a majority of the inhabited world.
The bayberry is a northern U.S. member of this genus which produces larger berries and is collected commercially to produce the popular candle scent. Before the advent of mass-market candles, wax myrtles had the same use in many North Florida homes.
The wax myrtle does well in a moist environment, both sun and shade. It is an excellent choice for use in poorly drained soils, but grows well in drier soils and alkaline pH ranges which are common in Wakulla County.
It will grow in near total shade as an understory plant, but produces a thin and spindly appearance. It is very salt tolerant which makes it a suitable choice for homes on the Gulf.
Wax myrtles can reach a height of 25 feet. Their leaves are evergreen narrow at the base and broader toward the upper end of the leaves. About midway up the leaf toward the tip, coarse teeth appear on the leaf edges. The trunk of the wax myrtle is grayish white in color, similar to northern birch.
Male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. The female flowers grow in close bunches producing light green round fruits about an eighth of an inch in diameter. The fruits are coated with a thick, bluish wax and very attractive to hungry birds and wildlife.
Wax myrtles produce suckers, small plants sprouting from the roots as they extend out from the tree. The suckers grow into large clumps, or clusters, and eventually develop into a very large, dense brushy thicket with multiple trunks. Suckers can be removed to produce an attractive, small tree when a manicured appearance is required.
Wax myrtles can be grown from seeds, cuttings, and simple layering techniques. Seeds can be started in a mixture of equal parts sand and peat moss.
To transplant, dig established plants during the winter months. Cut the small plants back to within a few inches of the ground, then dig out the root clumps for placing in containers of appropriate size.
In a few months as the weather warms with the season change, the plant will sprout and regrow. A small tree ten to 12 feet in height will take a few years to grow using this method, but the birds and wildlife will appreciate the effort.
To learn more about wax myrtles, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco.