Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) takes its name from the waxy, bluish-gray berries that form on female plants. These berries, once used in candle-making, are a big hit with wild birds, making messy berry droppings -- and unwanted seedlings -- nonexistent problems. Wax myrtle plants can be either male or female. One male needs to be in the area for female plants to bear berries. Males form clusters of yellow, 1-inch flowers instead of berries. A North American native, this large shrub or small tree grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7b through 11a. It is also called southern wax myrtle and southern bayberry.
The fast-growing wax myrtle grows about 24 inches each season, making it prone to weak wood. Pruning the branches twice a year strengthens the structure of the shrub, and pruning away sucker shoots leads to a neat appearance when the plant is trained into a tree form. At its tallest, it reaches a height of 25 feet and a width of 20 to 25 feet. The evergreen leaves are narrow, about 5 inches long, alternate on the stem and aromatic when crushed.
Versatile All Around
Whether your yard is full sun or full shade or has acidic or alkaline soil, this versatile shrub should do well, although it produces denser foliage in full sun than in shade. It prefers moist, well-draining soil, but can withstand flooding and some periods of drought. Wax myrtle can fix its own nitrogen, so it grows well in nutrient-poor soils. If it gets too cold, the leaves may turn brown and fall off.
Wax myrtle isn't generally bothered by pests or diseases, although caterpillars and mites may cause some leaf damage. Webworms may also spin nests in the branches; prune these parts of the plant off when you see them. Fusarium oxysporum, a fungus that can kill wax myrtle, is a problem in some areas. When grown in highly alkaline soils, it can suffer from iron deficiency, which may turn the leaves yellow.
Plant in Ground or Container
If you can't decide between a tall shrub or small tree, wax myrtle can fill both roles. Remove the lower branches from the trunk and form it into a focal tree in a flower bed or to fill a space under power lines. Or plant a row of these multistemmed shrubs and form them into a low-growing hedge. Wax myrtle's dense foliage makes it a good screen plant, and its high tolerance to salt makes it a smart choice for seaside planting. In a container, grow a smaller cultivar, such as "Club Med," which can reach up to 15 feet in height. The dwarf cultivar "Pumila," which grows less than 4 feet tall, can be trained as a bonsai. Both cultivars grow in USDA zones 8 through 9. Always use a container with drainage holes for wax myrtle.