“A bayberry candle burnt to the socket brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket.” New England Proverb
Bayberries were named so because the pilgrims found them growing along Cape Cod Bay, in New England. When the pilgrims arrived on the East Coast of North America they depended on animal fat for lighting. Tallow candles were smoky and smelly. However, bayberries or wax myrtle grow in the maritime climate of the east coast from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas. The berries produce a waxy substance. The pilgrims extracted the wax from these berries to produce fragrant candles for special occasions, like Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve.
The practice was time-consuming and bayberry candles took too long to make, for them to be practical for everyday use, so the candles were only used for special occasions.
There is a folk custom that burning a new bayberry candle on Christmas Eve, or in some locations, New Year’s Eve would bring health and prosperity. To invoke the custom, it’s important that the candle not be blown out once it is lit, but that it is allowed to burn down completely. More about this custom later.
Never leave a burning candle unattended. If you must leave your home and you don’t wish to blow out the candle, simply put the burning candle on a heat resistant plate, and place the plate with the candle in the kitchen sink, away from combustibles.
Where to forage for bayberries
Bayberry is also called, waxberry, wax myrtle, miracle bush, sweet gale, candle berry, northern bayberry (Morella pensylvanica, formerly Myrica pensylvanica) wax myrtle (Morella cerifera formerly, Myrica cerifera) Californian waxberry (Myrica californica), sweet Gale, bog myrtle (Myrica gale), Myrica or Chinese Bayberry (Myrica rubra), and southern waxberry (Morella caroliniensis). Much of the commercially available bayberry wax comes from Central and South America using Morella Cerifera plants.
California waxberry and sweet gale can be found growing wild within 50 miles of the ocean from California to the West coast of Vancouver Island. Sweet Gale’s range extends as far North as Alaska and it is found near wetlands throughout Canada. The plants are considered part of the Myrtle family, which includes several strongly aromatic shrubs and trees like tea tree, eucalyptus, clove, allspice, and bay rum. The native North American species are considered different enough from the European and Asian races that they’ve recently been renamed “Morella” instead of “Myrica”.
If you live in a tropical climate like Hawaii Myrica faya, Morella faya or Fire Tree is an invasive tree there and can be found in young volcanic areas. Myrica faya has both male and female flowers on the same plant. The leaves and berries of this Myrica also produce wax. Further, there are native waxberry and myrtle plants all over the world. Most have similar aromatic leaves and berries that contain wax.
In Europe the species is called Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale) and is found close to the coast in bogs and wetlands. The berries on this species look more like galls than berries, but still produce a waxy substance when boiled. This myrtle plant is found throughout the Northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere.
Some bayberry plants are considered endangered and threatened in local populations, so before you harvest from wild populations check the condition of the plants in your area. Consider growing them on your homestead for a reliable supply.
Bayberry shrubs are easy to grow if you have the space from zone 3 to zone 11. It is a nitrogen-fixing plant, making it a good addition to a permaculture hedgerow or understory planting. With northern bayberry, about 4 to 6 pounds of berries are needed to produce one pound of wax. The actual wax yield varies according to the growing conditions and seasonal fluctuations in temperature and moisture, so keep this in mind when planning your planting. However, since the plants grow so well, once established, bayberry is a good addition to the garden for making household cosmetics and fragrant candles.
How to extract the wax from bayberries
Gather the berries when fully ripe in early to mid-fall, October to November in most areas. The berries will remain on the bush into the winter, unless they are eaten by birds.
Wash the berries under cold water. Using a pot reserved for wax, place the cleaned berries into the pot. Fill the pot with cold water so that the water comes to at least 2 inches above the top of the berries. Simmer the berries for one hour, but do not boil. Boiling the water will reduce the fragrant scent by releasing the essential oils.
Pour off the water while it is still hot, reserving the water. It will contain bayberry wax. Add fresh cold water and simmer the berries again for one hour. Pour off the water into the pot with the first water. The wax will float on the surface of the water. Simmer the water, briefly, so that all the wax is floating on the surface of the water. Turn off the heat and let the water cool overnight. The extracted berries may be safely composted.
Once the wax has solidified, remove it from the surface of the water.
How to clean the wax
At this point, the wax may contain bits of twigs, bugs, and debris, captured in the floating wax. Place the wax into a cleaned wax pot. Add three inches of water to the pot. Simmer the wax once again in this freshwater, just long enough to melt the wax. Remove any twigs or debris that are floating on the surface. Turn off the heat and let the wax solidify again in a cool place.
Remove the solid wax. Lay it out on a clean surface to dry fully. Once the wax is fully dry it may be stored until you are ready to use it.
The wax is hard, brittle, and fatty to the touch. When using it for candle making add beeswax to the wax formula in a 1:2 ratio of beeswax to bayberry wax, by weight. Use a gram scale for accuracy. While you can make candles out of 100% bayberry wax, the addition of beeswax makes the candles more stable and less brittle.
In commercial candles bayberry fragrance oil is added to paraffin wax along with green dye, to produce inexpensive bayberry votive candles. Since commercial bayberry candles are scented with fragrance oil, you may find natural bayberry candles lack the characteristic bayberry scent you might be expecting.
Natural bayberry wax has a subtle, spicy scent that is more pronounced as the candle is blown out, similar to beeswax candles. The colour of the wax is a pale sage green to olive green colour that varies with the growing conditions. It will develop a white blush, in the same way, that natural beeswax candles develop a white blush, due to the triglycerides that rise to the surface as the wax cools and crystallizes.
The melting point of bayberry wax is 114 to 130F, below the melting point of beeswax (140°F). Add bayberry to the same pot as beeswax and melt the two together, then thoroughly mix them before pouring your candle.
Since the melting point of bayberry wax is lower than the melting point for beeswax, choose a wick that is one size smaller than the wick you’d choose for the same size beeswax candle. This will prevent the candle from melting faster than the wick can take up the wax pool as fuel. If you are making a lot of bayberry candles, test the wick size out on a few candles before committing to a bigger production run. The most common complaints about malfunctioning candles can be prevented by proper wick sizing.
DIY Bayberry Votive Candle
Yield: 2 three and a half-inch pillar candles or votives
- 2 molds for votive or pillar candles (3 ¼ to 4 inches high and 1 ½ inches diameter)
- Mold release spray (if you are using a metal or plastic mold)
- 2/0 wick, in the length needed for the candle molds (or appropriately sized wick for your mold)
- 1 cup bayberry wax (200 grams)
- 1/2 cup beeswax (96 grams)
- If you are using a metal or plastic mold, prepare the mold by spraying with mold release spray. Silicone molds do not require the application of a mold release spray.
- Determine the appropriate size for your wick. Bayberry candles generally use a wick that is one or two sizes smaller than the same diameter pure beeswax candle.
- Your wick is right-side up when the “V”s along the cotton braid are upright along the length of the wick. Place the top of the wick into position at the top of your candle, which is the bottom of your mold.
- If you are using a metal votive mold, prepare the wick by placing it in a wick tab inside the candle mold. Anchor the wick tab in place according to the directions with your chosen votive mold.
- If you are using a silicone mold the top of the wick will be clipped in place at the bottom of the mold, sliding the wick into the slit in the centre of the mold. Close the mold securely by matching the two sides of the mold seam, and securing the seam closed with rubber bands.
- Make a double boiler using a tin can and a saucepan. Add water to the saucepan so that it comes halfway up the side of the tin can. Add the bayberry wax and the beeswax to the tin can. Simmer the saucepan over medium heat until the wax melts fully.
- Stabilize the wick in the mold by clipping a bobby pin through the wick, so that the pin is level with the top of the mold (usually the bottom of the candle). Using two chopsticks, on either side of the wick, centre the wick in the mold.
- Use a piece of mold putty, or plasticine to anchor the top of the wick into the bottom of the mold, if necessary, to plug the wick hole and prevent the wax from leaking out. This may be necessary for hard plastic or metal mold. It shouldn’t be necessary with a flexible silicone mold.
- Pour the melted wax into the mold. Verify that the mold is level. If the poured wax is slanted in the top of the mold, indicating that the mold is not level, use a bobby pin or two, under the mold to correct the imbalance and level the mold.
- Allow the wax to solidify. The wax will shrink back from the wick at the top of the mold. Use a chopstick to break the wax around the wick where the indentation occurs. Pour fresh wax into the resulting hole, around the wick, ensuring that the wick is fully covered by the wax.
- Allow the candle to cool completely. Remove the candle from the mold. Trim the wick. True the bottom of the candle by sliding the bottom against a hot surface, like an electric frying pan covered in parchment paper. This will ensure that the candle stands upright in the holder.
The Gift of Bayberry Candles
Bayberry candles are lovely and rare gifts. They come with a history and story. The candles have a subtle spicy fragrance and old fashioned beauty. When you give bayberry candles as a gift you renew the age-old custom of bringing blessing to the homes of your friends and family.
Be sure to include the Bayberry Candle Legend, attached with a red or green bow to the candle, that you are gifting.
(Get your free printable tags and a story to include with your bayberry candle gifts by clicking the button below)
The Bayberry Candle Legend
This bayberry candle comes from a friend
So on Christmas Eve burn it down to the end
A Bayberry candle burned to the socket
Brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket
Free Printable Gift Bag for Your Handmade Bayberry Candles
Get a Free Printable Berry Candle Gift Bag to give your bayberry candle in. The gift bag stands 5 inches tall by 3 1/4 inches wide and 1 1/2 inches deep and is the perfect size for bayberry tea lights or a bayberry pillar candle.
You’ll need scissors, a glue stick, 2 yards/meters of baker’s twine, and a hole punch, to assemble your bayberry candle gift bag.
More Bayberry recipes:
For more ideas for beeswax crafts see my new book:
The Beeswax Workshop : How to Make Your Own Natural Candles, Cosmetics, Cleaners, Soaps, Healing Balms and More
(Ulysses Press, 2017)