Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) is a native shrub to small tree that commonly occurs in most habitat types in Florida, from freshwater wetlands to scrub. In the landscape it tends to produce small genets (or clonal colonies) which makes this plant an outstanding and fast growing hedge that creates great nesting habitat for birds like the brown thrasher. Other small granivorous (seed-eating) birds like warblers eat the tiny seeds that are covered with wax, which was historically also used by humans for candle-making, especially for Christmas. The leaves and seeds are also edible and can be used as a spice.
Use wax myrtle around your pond (see photo) to stabilize the shoreline and to improve the quality of the water. Turtles, ducks, cormorants, frogs and other animals will use the plant for shelter, and the red-banded hairstreak butterfly uses it as a larval host plant. If allowed to spread into the water it can even create habitat for minnows like the mosquito fish that will find shelter beneath the roots and low hanging branches that reach into the water.
As one of the most reproductive plants in Florida, wax myrtle improves its own soil quality. What makes it so successful as a pioneer species on disturbed sites is the fact that it has formed a symbiotic relationship with a species of actinobacteria in special root nodules. This enables the plant to fix unusable atmospheric nitrogen (or dinitrogen N2) in the soil as usable ammonia (NH3). This relationship, known as diazotrophy, is otherwise more common in the pea family, Fabaceae.
Another trait that has made wax myrtle so widespread and evolutionarily successful led to its use as a biocontrol agent against brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia) in the Everglades National Park in the 1980s. The plant produces growth and germination inhibiting chemicals in the leaves that are washed through the ground by rainfall. Despite partial success, the project was abandoned due to insignificant effects on the brazilian pepper’s extremely fast reproduction rate.
If you want to learn more about Florida, become a member of the Environmental Learning Center and join our members-only field trips.