Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a shrub native from Newfoundland to Maryland, reliably evergreen at the southern end of its range, semi-evergreen or deciduous in the north. It grows wild along the rocky Maine coast where its suckering habit forms immense colonies of windswept, salt-sprayed plants that grow only two feet high. In cultivation it is often used in poor sandy soils where few other plants will grow and where it remains relatively small, yet in richer soils it can grow over six feet tall. Wherever it grows, it demands full sun.
All parts of northern bayberry are aromatic when crushed. Its waxy gray berries, still used to scent candles, are produced in abundance along the young stems of female plants in fall and often persist through winter. A gray-green dye can be made from the lustrous, leathery, green leaves.
Northern bayberry is an important wildlife plant. The fruits are a preferred food of chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, tree swallows, catbirds, bluebirds, grouse, and others. Chestnut-sided warblers nest in New England bayberry thickets while yellow-rumped warblers fatten up on bayberry fruits at stopovers in fall migration. Bayberry thickets also provide nesting sites for songbirds, offering excellent protection from raccoons and other nest predators.
For a striking year-round combination, the gardener can interplant northern bayberry with one of New England’s native roses, either the Carolina rose (Rosa carolina) or Virginia rose (R. virginiana). The dark green foliage of bayberry makes an excellent foil for the simple pink flowers, deep red autumn leaves, and bright red hips of these roses.