Hawaiian Herbal Medicine: Rooted in Family and Tradition

By Kaila Blevins

Hawaiian Healer Po‘okela Papa Henry AuwaeMy grandmother grew up in Hawai’i, so my childhood was filled with trying traditional dishes like poi, and my vocabulary is peppered with Hawaiian words. But, I did not know much about traditional Hawaiian herbalism and began researching.

La’au lapa’au is one of several traditional healing methods practiced by Native Hawaiians, and it is rooted in the use of plants. A traditional healer’s job goes beyond just prescribing plants. They use a holistic approach to ensure that the body, mind, and spirit are in harmony to promote good health. The lack of harmony between the three elements results in illness. Beyond assessing the harmony between the body, mind, and spirit, healers follow traditional practices to ensure harmony with the environment as well.

Traditionally, the plants were harvested in the lush forests or were planted near heiaus, or sacred temples, if a healer resided there. Today, foraging at the temples is forbidden due to the sacredness and cultural significance of them. heiausHowever, healers from then and now continue to follow the same principles when approaching plants. They revere the plants for the gifts that they offer through their medicinal properties and act as stewards by tending to their needs and promoting sustainable foraging practices. This process acknowledges the innate intelligence of plants. As the healer approaches the required plant needed for healing, they think of the person who enlisted their help before kneeling and praying, sharing their gratitude for the plant, and asking permission to harvest. If permission is granted, the harvest begins. Once the necessary amount is gathered, the healer never turns their back to the plant–a societal norm that is also practiced when near elders–backing away, giving thanks for the gift. In some cases, the healer may not be the one to gather the medicine. Instead, this may be prescribed as part of the healing journey, and the client will forage and perform the ceremony of giving thanks to the required plants. 

Furthermore, since the plants are Earth’s gifts for humans to use, traditional healers will not charge for their services. The lack of payment ensures a lifelong commitment to the practice and prevents greed from tainting the practice. 

Between each island, the plant palette changes, so the island on which the healer resides dictates the plants used in their practice. However, some plants are indigenous to the majority of the islands, or they’ve been naturalized. Below is a brief list of plants and some of their herbal uses:

Aleurites moluccanus (kukui, candlenut)

Declared the state tree in 1959, kukui leaves are crushed into poultices, and the roasted nuts are pounded into salves to treat sores and external ulcers. Historically, mothers chewed the flowers and gave them to their children to heal sores. After recovering from an illness, the nut meat is often combined with fish and ‘uala (sweet potato) for a nutrient-rich meal. Culturally, the nuts were used in candles, and the ash collected from burned nuts was used for tattoos and canoe paint. 

Morinda citrifolia flowers and fruitMorinda citrifolia (noni, Indian mulberry)

Introduced in 1941 from Fiji, noni has naturalized across the islands and is also cultivated due to its numerous herbal benefits. The leaves are used to treat a variety of skin problems, including cuts, boils, growths, and even lice. Traditional healers use all parts of the tree as a laxative.  

Saccharum officinarum (kō, sugarcane)

Saccharum officinarum sugar caneChewing on the sugary stalk can strengthen the teeth and gums, while the juice is used to sweeten other medicines, or is combined with Ipomoea alba (tropical white morning glory) and salt to treat deep cuts and wounds. In folklore, the juice of kō is used to create a love potion. However, the correct species must be utilized since others are used to block love potions.

After I completed the draft of this blog post, I called my grandmother and discussed the topic with her. While she was not familiar with the uses of the plants, it did remind her of the landscape of her youth. Furthermore, I enjoyed learning about the Native experience and interactions they had with the environment, since their practices are rooted in respect for their environment and plants.

Photo credits: 1) Hawaiian Healer Po‘okela Papa Henry Auwae (Jeanella and Kehaulani Keopuhiwa, National Library of Medicine); 2) Heiaus (National Park Service); 3) Aleurites molucanna flowers and fruit (Hawaiian Plants and Tropical Flowers); 4) Morinda citrifolia (Plants of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park); 5) Saccharum officinarum (National Tropical Botanical Garden).

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.

References

Aleurites moluccanus (kukui). (n.d.). Accessed 7/2020. https://www.kapiolani.hawaii.edu/aleurites-moluccana

Kalama, H. (n.d.).: Healing With Spirituality And Herbs. Accessed 7/2021.  http://heyokamedicine.com/laau-lapaau

Lincoln, N. K. (2017). Description of Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties. Accessed 7/2021. http://cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu/cane

National Park Service. Wailua Complex of Heiaus. Accessed 8/13/2021. https://www.nps.gov/places/wailua-complex-of-heiaus.htm

Timboy, M. (n.d.). La‘au Lapa‘au: Medicinal Plants and Their Healing Properties. Accessed 7/2021. https://keolamagazine.com/agriculture/medicinal-plants/

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Medicine Ways: Traditional Healers and Healing. Accessed 7/2021. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/exhibition/healing-ways/medicine-ways/healing-plants.html


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_nKaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. She is pursuing a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha, and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets.

Baklava Bias

By Keith Howerton

Lebanese BaklawiMaking baklava, or baklawi/baklawa/ba’lawa, as it’s generally called in Arabic-speaking cultures, is a real pain in the…well, everywhere. Pain in the neck, pain in the wrist, pain in the bank account. My mom used to make it with my aunt once a year, usually around Christmas, and I have managed to dodge helping every single time. Sorry mom. Since her side of the family is Lebanese, we’ve always called it baklawi, so I’ll refer to it as such here, though I usually call it baklava around other people, because otherwise, they won’t know what I’m talking about. Even my laptop doesn’t; it has already auto-corrected baklawi to baklava three times since I started writing.

Greek baklava is essentially a few dozen layers of incredibly thin phyllo dough brushed with melted butter between each layer, and then sliced, baked, and drenched in a honey-based, or sugar-based, syrup to soak into all those buttery, flaky layers of phyllo dough. Usually a light layer of nuts is added halfway through the layering, and again on the top. Sometimes the nuts are tossed with cinnamon before layering them in, and many people also add vanilla extract.

There are probably more versions of baklava/baklawi/baklawa/ba’lawa than there are layers of phyllo dough, which is why I won’t bother writing a detailed recipe here. Okay, if you insist. It’s at the bottom.

Baklava and baklawi, while nearly the same dessert, have one key difference. There will always be other subtle differences between families, bakeries, restaurants, regions, or what have you, but in my experience, there’s one ingredient swap that makes the Lebanese version (and that of the surrounding area) pretty different.

Love.

No, no…wait that’s not right.

The “secret” ingredient is rose water. Or orange blossom water, but my family uses rose water. 

The version my family makes is the same structure as what is described above, except the syrup is infused with rose water. This one ingredient substantially changes the flavor, though it may look the same as baklava. It is very easy to overdo it on the rose water, so if you decide to try out making the Levantine version, go light on the rose water the first time!

Rose water, from my understanding and some quick online searching and YouTubing, is fairly simple to make at home. It’s basically an infusion made from rose petals. I have not done it personally; we always just bought some at a local Middle-Eastern market. And I think the commercially produced stuff is a bit more interesting anyway.

Rosa damascena, or damask rose, an extremely fragrant rose resulting from a natural hybrid of a few different roses, is the preferred species for making rose water. The petals are picked by hand and then distilled. The result is two different Lebanese Rose Water Ingredient Listproducts: a waxy, oily substance called attar used in perfumery and the rose water itself. A number of different countries cultivate Rosa damascena, both for the fragrance industry and for food uses, and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds trying to figure out who is producing how much and who they are exporting it to–at least for me. And I find stories more interesting than statistics, anyway. So, I went to a local Mediterranean market and took a look at the different rose water brands they offered. Well, I went to my local big-box store first and then to the Mediterranean market. Let’s start with the big-box store.

I picked up the first bottle of rose water and checked the ingredients. Yikes. I picked up the second. Yikes. Needless to say, I was shocked at the lack of quality in the rose water brands they carried! Jokes aside, I find it a bit surprising you can call something rose water when there is no rose water in it whatsoever.

The Mediterranean market was much better. Both brands I checked contained simply rose water. I purchased a bottle sourced from Lebanon. The Bekaa (or Beqaa) Valley, a sort of agricultural heartland in Lebanon and well-known for its wines and other products, boasts pretty substantial damask rose production, and it’s likely that’s where this manufacturer sourced its rose petals, although it’s Map of Lebanon and the Bekaa Valleydifficult to say for sure. 

I did not go out of my way to purchase Lebanese rose water rather than rose water produced somewhere else, but I do like the thought of us using a little piece of Lebanon to make a traditional recipe passed through my family for generations, all the way over here in the United States. 

Once the baklawi is finished, we keep it at room temperature out on the counter and someone, who will remain nameless, will sneak a piece and blame it on Dad.

It’s a painstaking, expensive dessert to make, but it is one of my favorites and one that will always hold a special place in my heart. Just not special enough to actually help. Oh, what’s that you say? We’re making baklawi? Shoot…I’m…I’m busy. Have to walk the cat.

Lebanese Baklawi Recipe

Pastry and filling

2 pounds (7 or 8 cups) chopped walnuts, pistachios, or pecans (my family usually uses pecans)

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon cloves

1 ½ pounds butter

2 pounds (or 2 boxes) phyllo dough

Combine nuts, cinnamon, and cloves. Brush the baking pan with melted butter. Place a layer of phyllo dough sheet on the bottom of the pan and brush with butter. Repeat until you have piled up half of your phyllo dough, each one brushed with butter. Distribute the nut mixture (½ inch thick) over the top of the bed of phyllo dough.. Then add the other half of the phyllo dough on top of the nut mixture, brushing each layer with butter. With a sharp knife, cut in diamonds. Bake at 250 degrees for 2 hours until the top turns a light golden brown and the pastry pulls away from the sides of the pan. Makes 2 dozen. While it is baking, prepare the syrup.

Syrup

3 cups sugar

1 ½ cups water

½-1 tsp rose water

Juice of 1 lemon

Mix sugar, water, and rose water. Boil until tacky and then add lemon juice. When syrup is cool, pour very slowly over baklawi. Do not refrigerate.

 

Photo Credits: 1) Lebanese baklawi (Oasis Baklawa, http://www.oasisbaklawa.com); 2) Rosa ‘Autumn Damask’ and Rosa ‘Kazanlik’ (Chrissy Moore); 3) Lebanese rose water ingredient list (Keith Howerton); 4) Map of Lebanon and Bekaa Valley (www.news.bbc.co.uk).

References

Cherri, Rima. 2019. Syrian rose farmer uses skills to graft new life in Lebanon. The UN Refugee Agency/US. Accessed 6/2021. https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/stories/2019/12/5e01c9164/syrian-rose-farmer-uses-skills-graft-new-life-lebanon.html

Financial Tribune. 2019. Iran meets 90% of global rosewater demand. Accessed 7/15/2021. https://financialtribune.com/articles/domestic-economy/98443/iran-meets-90-of-global-rosewater-demand

The Herb Society of America. 2011. The Herb Society of America Essential Guide: Roses 2012 Herb of the Year. Accessed 7/31/21. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/83784ac3-dac2-4586-8d62-6bbf56a98b74

Gourmet Food World. Accessed 7/31/21. https://www.gourmetfoodworld.com/cortas-rose-water-11762#recipes

Mahboubi, Mohaddese. 2015. Rosa damascena as holy ancient herb with novel applications. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. Elsevier. Accessed on 6/2021. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2225411015000954

 


After getting a horticulture degree from Texas A&M University, Keith was the 2017 National Herb Garden intern, and then spent a year and a half in the Gardens Unit at the US National  Arboretum. He has worked with restaurants and hydroponics and now works in urban forestry at Casey Trees in Washington, DC. He is obsessed with all things growing food, foreign languages, and cooking (and eating).

Welcoming Spring in the Year 1400

By Zainab Pashaei

Haft-Sin tableI’m not talking about time travel. Nowruz—the equivalent of the New Year—was just celebrated on the spring equinox in Iran as well as in numerous other countries and among ethnic groups in the Middle East. In Iran, the first month of the year is called Farvardin, which began on March 20, 2021 (spring equinox). Although the year is specifically 1400 in Iran, Iranian traditions for Nowruz are thousands of years old and pre-date the emergence of Islam in the country. In contrast to Western nations, the importance of nature and spring plays a critical role in new year festivities of the nation. Many of these festivities are symbolic and involve herbs, nature, and light (fire).

JumpingDuring the festivities, which start on the Wednesday before the spring equinox, Iranians will gather and jump over fires and light fireworks in observance of Chaharshanbe Suri (loose translation = Wednesday celebration). It is like the pre-game show to the Nowruz celebration. Then Nowruz, the beginning of spring, is celebrated by gathering with family and friends, eating, and making a Haft-Sin table for display. The Haft-Sin table is very symbolic of what you hope for in the new year. Iranians will decoratively place seven items which begin with the letter ‘s’, or “sin” in Farsi. Depending on the preference of the person who arranges the Haft-Sin, you may also notice a book of wisdom, such as the Quran, the Bible, the Avesta, the Shahnameh, or the divān of Hafez. Almost always, the sprouts of wheat or lentils are placed on the table and tied with a ribbon symbolizing “sabzi” or greens. (Wheat, by the way, is one of the most important agricultural products of Iran and originated in ancient Mesopotamia.)

Persians_in_Holland_Celebrating_Sizdah_Bedar,_April_2011_-_Photo_by_Persian_Dutch_Network-PDNWhen the 13th day of Farvardin comes, Iranians celebrate Sizdah Bedar, which means “13 Outdoor” or commonly called “Nature’s Day.” Some say this is an unlucky day to stay inside, though it is unclear whether people believe it is unlucky due to Western influence or due to the history or traditions of Iran. Nevertheless, Iranians go outdoors to enjoy nature and picnic. The wheat or lentil sprouts are returned to nature or thrown out. Some young boys and girls pluck two strands of grass and tie a knot in hope of finding love.

Then Iranians will go above and beyond in cooking for this outdoor picnic. Kabobs and herb stew or herb soups are often prepared. If you ever sit down and eat with an Iranian, you can see how much they appreciate nature with the abundance of herbs in almost every dish. Herbs are symbolic of new life and beginnings! So cheers to new life and new beginnings to all those who are part of the herbal community!

Recipe for Ash Reshteh (Persian Noodle and Herb Soup)

Serves: 8 – 10  people

2 – 15 ounce cans of dark red kidney beans 

Ash Reshteh soup1 – 8 ounce cup of lentils

*4 ounces of Ash Sabzi dried herbs (a mixture of spinach, cilantro, parsley, leek, and mint)

*8 ounces of reshteh noodles (may substitute with Thai linguine rice noodles if Gluten Free)

2 bunches of fresh spinach

1 bunch cilantro (may substitute with green onions if cilantro averse)

1 bunch parsley

4 large onions

6 garlic cloves (may substitute with garlic powder if necessary)

3 tablespoons of olive oil

1 tablespoon of ground turmeric

1 lime

Salt/pepper according to taste preference

*Optional Kashk (may substitute with full fat yogurt/sour cream)

Optional dried mint 

Optional French fried onions (Gluten Free versions do exist)

 *Can be found in Middle Eastern markets. Add more according to taste preference.

Directions:

Soak all dried herbs in equal parts water. Soak lentils in equal parts water. Drain both after half an hour to an hour. Wash fresh herbs and coarsely chop. 

Chop all onion and garlic and fry on medium-high heat in olive oil until golden and tender in a large stock pot. Once the garlic and onion are tender, reduce the heat to medium-low and add the fresh herbs with soaked dried herbs. Add the turmeric and a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper to the herbs. Then add enough water so that the herbs do not stick, and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. 

While this is simmering, boil the lentils until tender (this may take 15 – 20 minutes as well). Then drain/set aside. After 20 minutes have passed, you should be adding more water to fill the pot so that noodles and beans may cook and everything can freely move around inside the pot. Now, add the lentils and red kidney beans and simmer for about 5 – 10 minutes, then add the reshteh noodles and cook until tender. Remove from heat and squeeze one fresh lime and stir.

You know your ash reshteh is ready when there is some viscosity or thickness to the soup. If you have dried mint in your home, you may simmer a teaspoon or two and add for enhanced flavor or add more salt/pepper. Kashk is often mixed in with this dish (a few teaspoons will suffice). Kashk is like the curds from cooking yogurt so it has a strong taste. You can substitute this with full fat yogurt or sour cream. Topping the soup with French fried onions is also common, so indulge if you must!

Bon Appétit or as the Iranians say, Nooshe Jan!

Photo Credits: 1) Haft-Sin table decoration (Mariam Pashaei); 2)  Members of the Laki community in the Lorestan Province, Iran, playing a traditional game, Daal Palan (Kian Kakoolvand); 3) Persians in Holland celebrating Sizdah Bedar (Wikimedia Commons); 4) Ash Reshteh soup (Zainab Pashaei).


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.

Growing Up with Betel Nut

By Shaila Gupte

04 Betel Nuts 610-46 VFBetel nut (pronounced bet′-al) palm trees (Areca catechu) are grown in different parts of India, as well as elsewhere in South Asia and in China. Still, the betel nuts grown in Konkan—the coastal region south of Mumbai—are widely considered among the best quality.

My family owns a very small plantation, which is overseen by my brother, about 120 miles south of Mumbai. The various crops include betel nut (Areca catechu), coconut (Cocos nucifera), hapus mango (Mangifera indica ‘Alphonso’), 01 Betel Nuts 538 VFjackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), pomelo (Citrus maxima), kokum (Garcinia indica), finger bananas (Musa acuminata Colla), soursop (Annona muricata), guava (Psidium guajav), chikoo (Manilkara zapota), various flowering shrubs, and vegetables. Out of all these, the major cash crop is betel nut, followed by coconut. In Konkan, a one-acre farm can support a family of four; vegetables and fruits grown on the farm are eaten, while extra items are sold. Grains and meat are purchased mostly with the money from the betel nut cash crop and also, to a much smaller extent, from coconut, fruits, and vegetables.

Betel trees can grow up to 50 feet in height and are slender and flexible, in contrast to coconut trees, which are very stout. The tree sprouts from a betel nut (with its green outer layer) planted about six inches deep in moist soil. The soil needs moisture until the first few leaves appear. The sapling is then transplanted to its permanent location in rows about 6 – 8 feet apart. After that, the soil needs to dry out between waterings. The most common and efficient irrigation is the drip system in which the water slowly soaks into the soil from soaker pipes at the base of the tree. The tree needs a year-round supply of water and grows best in full sun, though it can survive in partial shade. Usually, cow dung is 03 Betel Nuts 523 VFused as a fertilizer.

Betel nut fruits appear about 4 – 5 years after planting. Each fruit cycle takes about one year from when a small flower appears until the fruit is ready to harvest. When the fruit is ripe, the husk changes color to reddish brown. At that point, the fruit is cut off from the tree. Experienced betel tree climbers can bend the tree enough to jump from one tree to the other like monkeys. The ripe fruit is then dried in direct sunlight with the husk partially removed to speed drying. When completely dry, the fruit is “shucked,” leaving a hard tan colored nut the size of a walnut. The yield varies from 5 – 7 to 200 – 300 nuts per tree, depending on the tree’s age and growth conditions. In 2018, the wholesale price for the variety called “Shrivardan gota” was 200 – 300 rupees/kilo (about US $1.50-$2.50/lb). The price of betel nut has been dropping over the years as the production around the world increases.

Betel nut is eaten alone or in a paan. In most parts of India, paan is the most popular after-dinner mouth freshener. Paan is made with betel leaves from the Piper betle plant (closely related to black pepper, Piper nigrum), betel nut (Areca catechu), calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), catechu (an extract from acacia trees), cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, rose petal preserve, and other individualized ingredients. The betel nut contains the alkaloid arecoline, which is a habit forming substance similar to nicotine, with the side effect of cardiovascular constriction, among other health hazards. Paan5Despite this medical information, the belief is that eating paan helps digestion, especially after a heavy meal with meat. Some people put chewing tobacco in the paan for an extra kick. The saliva containing tobacco is not swallowed; it is spit out. (Note: Saliva causes a chemical reaction to take place between the betel leaf (Piper betle) and the lime, turning the saliva (and sometimes the consumer’s teeth) red. Because of this, one sees a lot of red colored street corners near the paan shops in India.) 

We had a shiny brass octagonal box for storing paan ingredients. My father ate 4 – 5 paans per day. My mother made paans for him in the morning and put them in a small silver box to take to work. When we were young, on Sundays after a heavy mid-day meal, we would buy paan from the paan shop with added ingredients to our liking, eat them, and stick our tongues out to see whose tongue was the reddest!

02 Shaila and Prakash with Betel Nuts 607 VFBetel nut is a sacred fruit for most Hindu religious ceremonies. It can substitute for deities or can be used as an offering. Some Hindu rituals are to be performed by a couple. In such cases, if the man doing the ritual is widowed, the betel nut can be used in place of the wife. Traditional wedding invitations are started by giving betel nut to the invitees. Paradoxically, betel nuts are also a symbol of a commitment for an evil deal between criminals.

Without a doubt, the betel nut contributes mightily to both commerce and religion in Maharashtra, the state in central India where Mumbai is located and where I am from.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Stefan Kaben Images, except paan (Media India Group).

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.


Shaila Gupte grew up in Mumbai, India. She came to the United States to study and now considers Maryland home. She is a gardening and greenhouse volunteer in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and is a Master Gardener. When not at the Arboretum, she likes to grow vegetables of Indian origin.

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.