Bayberry Candles

By Katherine K. Schlosser

The season of lights is upon us. During this darkest time of the year, we gravitate to earthly sources of light to keep things merry and bright.

Drupes2_zoomed in to see waxEarly in our history as a country, many were short on money and luxuries such as candles. Livestock numbers were as yet too low to produce the quantity of tallow needed to make candles affordable, so following the lead of Native Americans, householders turned to candlewood to provide light on winter evenings.

We know candlewood as fatwood or pine knots—the resin-impregnated heartwood of pine trees.  Pines that were cut to clear land, build homes, and provide heat for warmth and cooking left stumps in the ground. Those stumps, full of resin, hardened and became rot-resistant…and were an easy source of candlewood. Slim slivers cut from the wood burned hot and bright.

Alice Morse Earle, writing in the 1800s about life in Colonial America, quoted a statement made by Rev. Mr. Higginson in 1633:

     They are such candles as the Indians commonly use, having no other, and they are nothing else but the wood of the pine tree, cloven in two little slices, something thin, which are so full of the moysture of turpentine and pitch that they burne as cleere as a torch.

Though efficient, abundant, and readily available, candlewood produced copious amounts of smoke, along with a strong scent of turpentine, making it less desirable than more traditional candles. Those living along the coast had the advantage of another source of light: fish oil, with which they filled lamps.

It wasn’t long before enterprising New England Colonists discovered the virtues of bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), a deciduous shrub common along coastal plain areas.  The branches, leaves, and fruits are sweetly aromatic, and were used by Native Americans for a variety of medical complaints, including gum disease.20201223_103259

Here in North Carolina, southern bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) is evergreen and native to our coastal plain and the Outer Banks.  There are other species, mostly on the East Coast. Morella cerifera, wax myrtle, is native from Maryland south to Florida and westward to Texas. Morella inodora, scentless bayberry, grows from Georgia to Louisiana and south to Florida. The outlier is M. californica, California wax myrtle, reaching from southern California through Oregon and into Washington.

The dark blue berries (non-edible drupes) of these waxy species are covered with a grayish-white waxy substance. Boiled in large vats of water, the wax floats to the surface, where it is skimmed and transferred to another pot for refining. Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist writing in 1748, reported that the wax “acquires a fine and transparent green color. This tallow is dearer than common tallow, but cheaper than wax.”

The end product was somewhat brittle, but burned slowly and without smoke.  Even better, when extinguished, the candles yield a pleasant, warm aroma with the exception of M. inodora.  Kalm also reported that “in Carolina they not only make candles out of the wax of the berries, but likewise sealing-wax.”

The berries are small and the waxy coating thin, making enormous quantities necessary to make a candle—eight pounds of the berries are required to make one pound of wax. The candles were so popular that in 1687, Brookhaven, New York, passed a law to help protect the plants: gathering of the berries before September 15th of the year brought a fifteen shilling fine.  

To alleviate the problem of brittle candles, a small amount of beeswax was added before forming the candles. Bayberry was the longest burning candle of all, giving rise to the uniquely American tradition of burning bayberry candles on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.  

The bonus to these clean, attractive, long-burning candles, was the fragrance released in a whiff of smoke when extinguished. So nice, in fact, that people were tempted to periodically extinguish and re-light the candles to enjoy the scent. That might, technically, violate the luck-bringing requirements of the New Year’s Eve tradition:  

A Bayberry Candle
burned to the socket 
brings Luck to the household, 
Food to the larder 
and Gold to the pocket.

Bayberry candle by Katherine K SchlosserNot only must the candle be burned on New Year’s Eve, but must be burned through one night and into the next day/year. A contemporary ten-inch taper will burn about 5-7 hours, so lighting one at dinner should last past midnight. If you stay up to bring the New Year in, your candle will probably burn down shortly thereafter. If you retire early and hesitate to leave an unattended candle burning, a friend suggests putting  your burning candle, securely in a candle holder, into the kitchen sink with no curtains or such nearby. You will miss the fragrance as the flame dies down, but you will have good luck for the next year.

You can grow bayberry in sandy or well-drained soil, slightly on the dry side, and in full sun or part shade (determine the native habitat in your area).  The shrubs where I live grow from three to eight feet tall, and if you have both male and female plants, and do not fertilize heavily, you will have a source for making your own candles.

If you purchase your candles, make sure to get those with actual bayberry wax rather than just bayberry “scented,” and enjoy a bright and happy holiday season.

Photo Credits: 1) Morella cerifera fruits, showing waxy coating (Erin Holden) 2) Morella cerifera hedge (Erin Holden); 3) Bayberry candle (Katherine Schlosser)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the NC Unit of The Herb Society since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level.  She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen deConway Little Medal of Honor.  She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.

Peru Balsam, the Loveliest Fragrance

By Erin Holden

Myroxylon_balsamum_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-141The first time I smelled balsam of Peru essential oil, I was hooked. The word that keeps coming to mind is decadent – deep, rich notes of vanilla with soft, smooth cinnamon and serious undertones of propolis. This isn’t surprising, as the oil shares thirteen constituents with propolis, a sticky substance made by bees for various purposes, similar in scent to honey. It also contains vanillin, responsible for vanilla’s fragrance, and a whole host of cinnamon-related compounds.  

I’ve been using small amounts of the essential oil in my personal perfume blends for many years. When I recently found a source for the resin, I immediately bought 2 ounces, thinking I could grind it up and use it in some homemade incense. I was quite surprised when I received a bottle of liquid more like molasses instead of the hard grains reminiscent of frankincense that I was expecting. That, in turn, prompted me to learn more about this tree, and then share what I found about this little known (at least to me!) resin. 

Peru balsam resin and oilBalsam of Peru (also called Peru balsam and many other similar names) is a balsam – an aromatic oleoresin containing benzole or cinnamic acid – extracted from a tree in the Fabaceae family, Myroxylon balsamum Pereirae Group. The genus name is Greek for “fragrant wood.” Despite its common name, Peru balsam is mainly produced in El Salvador – the confusion comes from the fact that the Spanish originally shipped the product back to Europe out of a Peruvian port. A very similar product, balsam of Tolu, is extracted from Myroxylon balsamum Balsamum Group, and is mainly produced in Brazil and Venezuela. It has a similar, though gentler, fragrance profile. For Peru balsam, strips of bark are removed from the tree and boiled, with the resulting resinous material collected. Another harvest method is to make incisions in the bark and wrap cloth around the wounds to soak up the resin, then boil the cloth to separate the resin out. 

Commercially, Peru balsam is used as a fragrance and flavoring agent in many consumer goods. Colas, aperitifs, baked goods, flavored tobaccos, cough medicines, and dental cement can contain the oil for flavor. It lends its fragrance to deodorants, lotions, sunscreens, and shampoos, as well as fine perfumes like Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, Youth Dew of Lauder, and Elixir des Merveilles by Hermès. Drawing on its purported antiseptic qualities, Peru balsam has also been used in surgical dressings and wound sprays. 

coca-cola-4555178_1280 from Pixabay free for useBecause of its widespread application, I was surprised to learn that Peru balsam is considered one the top five contact allergens, and in 1982, the International Fragrance Association banned the use of crude Peru balsam in fragrances. From what I understand, this doesn’t extend to the essential oil distilled from the balsam, or to its use as a flavoring, so it can still be found in some foods and cosmetics. I found many case histories of fragrance- and  food-triggered dermatitis, where allergy testing produced positive results for Peru balsam. And interestingly, foods that have similar compounds to Peru balsam, such as cinnamon and vanilla, can also trigger this reaction.  It’s fascinating to me that there are some seemingly ubiquitous ingredients in many of the products we use everyday, but we just don’t know about.

Photo credits: 1) Myroxylon balsamum ({PD-US} Franz Eugen Köhler); 2) Peru balsam resin and essential oil (author’s photo); 3) Coca cola with Peru balsam (Pixabay)


Erin is the gardener for the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America.

HSA Webinar: How to Grow and Use Lavender for Health and Beauty

By Jen Munson, Education Chair

A program I attended a few years back labeled basil the “King of Herbs,” but in my world, lavender is the true king. From its medicinal benefits to its culinary and craft uses, lavender can’t be beat. The fresh clean scent of lavender has been used in cosmetics and skin care products since ancient times. It smells good, improves circulation, attracts pollinators, and promotes sleep. With over twenty five different varieties, there is likely a lavender variety you can grow not only for its beauty, but for its many uses. 

Join us for our webinar on July 21st at 1pm EST with author Janice Cox when she presents “How to Grow and Use Lavender for Health and Beauty.” Learn how to start a new plant from cuttings, air-dry flowers for year round use, and create your own DIY body care products that can be used for hair care, skin care, and in the bath. Tips, recipes, and herbal craft ideas will be shared throughout this dynamic webinar.  

As an additional bonus, HSA Members can receive 20% off, plus free shipping, on Janice’s latest book, Beautiful Lavender (Ogden 2020). This book is filled with lavender recipes and ideas. Log into the member only area of the HSA website to obtain the code, then go to Janice’s website at http://www.naturabeautyathome.com to order the book. The book retails for $17.99, but for HSA members, it is $14.39 + free shipping!

Our webinars are free to members and $5.00 for guests. Visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars or click here to sign up. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free, and as an added bonus, you’ll automatically be entered into a raffle for a free educational conference registration to our 2021 conference being held in Baton Rouge, LA, from April 29th – May 1st, 2021.

About Janice Cox

Janice Cox is an expert on the topic of natural beauty and making your own cosmetic products with simple kitchen and garden ingredients. She is the author of three best-selling books on the topic: Natural Beauty at Home, Natural Beauty for All Seasons, and Natural Beauty from the Garden. She is currently the beauty editor for Herb Quarterly Magazine, is a member of the editorial advisory board for Mother Earth Living Magazine, and is a member of The Herb Society of America, International Herb Association, United States Lavender Growers Association, Oregon Lavender Association, and Garden Communicators International. 

Growing Green in Turkey

By Zainab Pashaei

Of the many countries looking to reduce their carbon footprint through landscape restoration and sustainability, you will find Turkey among them. When discussing Turkey, you may think of Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant GardenTurkish delight, exotic spices, historical ruins, or if you are a cat-person, the infamous street cats. What most do not know is that the country broke a record on November 12, 2019, for the most tree saplings planted in an hour: 303,150. As part of the nation’s campaign to restore its forests, eleven million trees were adopted online and planted across the country on the now official National Forestation Day (November 11). After spending time this past year in Istanbul and other cities across Turkey, I did notice from the window of my tour bus the many young trees adorning the landscape. Considering growing global health and environmental concerns, instilling environmentally friendly garden practices in the youth and establishing a place for people to reconnect with nature was a priority for one district in Istanbul. On a smaller scale amidst the crowds in Istanbul, I found the herbally-relevant Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden and Farm, a serene place for people to learn more about herbs.

As part of an urban regeneration project, this was Turkey’s first medicinal plant garden, which opened to the public in 2005 on 14 acres of land in the Zeytinburnu district. The garden boasts organic treatment of its plants, including natural compost and fertilizers. By adopting these methods, the garden hopes to demonstrate the sanctity of human health, the environment, and how the two intertwine. 59c8f95545d2a027e83ce2b2The garden researches and tests herbal plant material for quality and for safe use in oils and drugs. It is open year-round to educate the public about the safe and effective use of medicinal plants and has ongoing herbal and gardening educational workshops for adults and children.

Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden and its Health and Environment School conduct health classes, such as, phytotherapy, aromatherapy, first-aid plants, Ottoman traditional medicine, and medicinal plant chemistry. The phytotherapy seminar, for example, covers Turkey’s vegetation, poisonous plants, medicinal plant names and drugs, active components in the medicinal plants, theoretical and practical cultivation, harvesting and preparation of drugs, storage and control, and finally, use, possible interactions, warnings, and prescriptions for certain health problems.

The aromatherapy course covers essential oils, fragrances, cosmetics, the sense of smell, inhalation, and external applications of essential oils, as well as prescriptions for various ailments, such as cosmetic problems, minor burns, stress-induced headaches, sinus and respiratory congestion, and mild anxiety or depression. The horticulture staff also produces essential oils on-site from the 700 plant species that are cultivated in the garden, which they, then, sell to the public.

Additionally, Zeytinburnu employs researchers who study various medicinal plants and who provide guidance to the public in order to promote the plants’ value, both through an online Turkish publication and on the garden’s web site, which highlights proper seed storage and the medicinal preparation for hundreds of medicinal plants. In addition to the medicinal classes, there are culinary classes as well. Courses cover edible herbs and flowers, herbal teas, herbal energy drinks, tinctures, essential oils, and spice making.

Spices&Herbs2Outside Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden, I strolled through the bazaar with its colorful displays of herbs and spices. Seeing the wonderful array of plant material, I realized that, in addition to their well-established spice markets, Turkey has a quietly growing green movement. I am reminded of the beauty and diversity of our herbal plants, both at home and abroad.

 

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Zainab Pashaei Headshot NHG Rose GardenZainab Pashaei was the 2019 National Herb Garden Intern. She is a Washington, D.C., native and a proud at-home grower of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Zainab obtained her Bachelor’s of Science in Community Health at George Mason University. After graduating, she returned to school for graduate studies in Landscape Design at George Washington University. Zainab also worked with a floral design company in Fairfax, VA. In her free time, she continues to grow plants for food, health, and aesthetics.

Bergamot Orange – March Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

What do Earl Gray tea, the confection Turkish Delight, the liqueur Bergamia, eau de cologne, and some air fresheners have in common? The answer is: the essential oil from the bergamot orange, Citrus ×bergamia, The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for March.

March2020 HOM Bergamot OrangeWhen I first looked into March’s Herb of the Month, bergamot orange, I was sure there would not be much exciting information about this herbal tree. What can you expect from a tree that produces oddly shaped, yellow oranges? It turned out that I was very wrong.

Bergamot orange, C. ×bergamia, has a lot to satisfy the curious mind. The tree is a hybrid of lemon and sour orange, so I don’t think you are going to eat the fruit right from the tree. The origins of the tree are debated, but many believe it originated in Turkey. In fact, the origin of its name comes from the Turkish word “beg-a-mudi” which means “pears of the Prince” or “pears of the Lord.”

Today, the fruit is grown in many places, but the fruit which is produced in the coastal Calabria region of Italy is the most desirable. In fact, the Calabria region (the toe of the boot in Italy) is an economically protected area because of the fruit’s importance to not only the region’s economy, but also to future research into the fruit’s medicinal benefits. Eighty to ninety percent of the world’s production of bergamot essential oil (BEO) comes from this 60-mile strip of the Italian coastline.

1811-Rosoli-Flacon

Original “eau de cologne” containing bergamot, by Jean Marie Farina.

BEO is very important to the perfume industry. Its history in perfumery dates back to the late 1600s – early 1700s when the essence from the skin was first used to produce cologne water (eau de cologne) or toilet water. Still today, the essential oil is used in perfumes. According to Gina Maruca, et al., “bergamot oil, [sic] is one of the most important perfume materials; its pleasant refreshing scent, [sic] blends into almost, [sic] any perfume composition so that, today, there is not a perfume which does not contains BEO (Bergamot Essential Oil)” (Journal of Science and Engineering, 2017).

For use in cosmetics, the bergapten compound of bergamot essential oil is removed because it creates a photosensitivity to sunlight whenever used on the skin. People with photosensitivity should be careful using BEO that has not had this compound removed.

The juice from the bergamot orange was used in traditional Italian folk medicine to treat intestinal parasites and malaria. The oil was used as an antiseptic and to treat fevers. In Ayurvedic medicine, the oil has been used to treat a variety of skin problems, depression, flatulence, and loss of appetite. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, BEO was used to stimulate and re-balance the flow of energy in the body. Bergamot oil is still used in aromatherapy applications because, when inhaled, its ingredients soothe and calm the nervous system, reducing anxiety and stress and helping with sleep disorders.

BergaCal

Bergamot supplement (courtesy: madeinsouthitaly.com)

Still under investigation today are the therapeutic possibilities of bergamot, and there is great interest in its antioxidant, cancer- and cholesterol-fighting components. Other uses of the fruit include using the pulp and peel in animal feed and to improve soil. Because of its antimicrobial properties, researchers have recommended the use of bergamot essential oil on fresh fruit in order to prolong shelf life.

So for an herb that did not seem interesting at first, there is certainly a lot more to it than meets the eye. Or should I say the nose.

For more information about bergamot, recipes, and a colorful screensaver, please see The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.