February 5, 2008


Filed under: 1790'S BACKGROUND,HISTORY — carolyncholland @ 3:19 am

Winter and the holiday season are around the very close corner. Below is information on bayberry candles, used for Christmas and for light.

In the process of writing a historic romance novel, I keep finding material that is unfamiliar, such as the “plant that yields ready-made candles.” Hopefully you will enjoy the fruit of my research as much as I did, and perhaps you will even want to make some of your own candles this year.

A plant that yields ready-made candles? To me it sounds too good to be true.

Perhaps the advertising writing of English businessman William Playfair’s “good imagination” took hold when he and Joel Barlow, an American poet and lawyer, embellished a pamphlet describing America’s newly acquired western (Ohio) lands. (The original pamphlet, written by the Rev. Manasseh Cutler and Captain Hutchins, and designed to interest easterners in purchasing land in Ohio.)

Barlow was in France representing investors in the American Scioto Company, which had a land grant tucked into the Ohio Land Grant. Many of the investors were land speculators attempting to make money by selling to Frenchmen their preemptive rights to the land. Barlow was sent to France to market the land.

Living in southwestern Pennsylvania and having lived on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, reading their description of the land confirmed why Playfair was described as having a “good imagination.”

Their “Prospectus for an Establishment on the Rivers Ohio and Scioto” described the Ohio lands thusly: (It has) a climate wholesome and delightful, frost even in winter almost entirely unknown, and a river called, by way of eminence, the beautiful, and abounding in excellent fish of a vast size. Noble forests, consisting of trees that spontaneously produce sugar (the sugar maple) and a plant that yields ready-made candles (myrica cerifera). Venison in plenty, the pursuit of which is uninterrupted by wolves, foxes, lions or tigers. A couple of swine will multiply themselves a hundredfold in two or three years, without taking any care of them. No taxes to pay, no military services to be performed.

It’s obvious the scientific names inserted for the trees that “spontaneously produce sugar” and the plants that yield “ready-made candles” were inserted into the text at a later time.
Regardless, the phrase “a plant that yields ready-made candles” intrigued me. If it exists in Ohio, it should exist in southwestern Pennsylvania. But I’ve never come across it in my nature and gardening practices.

So I decided to search out information on the Internet highway.

There seems to be some name confusion in the bayberry family. However, in sorting it out, some bayberry plants occur as far north as Canada. A.k.a.’s include: Northern Bayberry (Myrica caroliniensis); Candleberry Bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica) and Swamp Candleberry (Myrica pensylvanica). (names from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, biology department Internet site).

The Myrica cerifa (Southern Wax Myrtle) is similar to Northern Bayberry but is a heat-loving evergreen species, suited to warm climates, according to It’s native on the coastal plain from Maryland to Texas.
The King’s American Dispensatory site ( discusses BAYBERRY-TALLOW, or MYRTLE WAX (Bayberry wax.): This substance is yielded by the berries and is obtained by boiling them in water, upon the top of which it floats, and from which it is removed when it has become cold and hardened; it is a concrete oil or fatty substance of a pale-green color, with a tendency to dirty gray, of moderate hardness and consistence, having the tenacity of beeswax, but more brittle and not so unctuous to the touch, of a faintly balsamic and pleasant odor which is increased by burning it, and of an astringent, bitterish taste. It fuses at a temperature of from 47° to 49° C. (116.6° to 120.2° F.) (Moore), burns with a clear, white flame, producing little smoke, and has the specific gravity 1.004 to 1.006. Water does not act upon it…A bushel of bayberries will yield about 4 pounds of the wax.

A site titled Plant of the Week, October 27, 2003 ( gives a description of candlemaking using the bayberry plant.
“Towards the end of autumn, when the berries are ripe, a man leaves his house, together with his family, to go to some island or bank near the seashore where the wax-trees grow in abundance. He carries with him vessels to boil the berries, and a hatchet to build the cottage where he may find shelter during his residence in this place, which is usually three to four weeks. While he cuts down trees (for shelter) his children gather the berries. A very fertile shrub will afford nearly seven pounds. When these are gathered the whole family employ themselves in procuring the wax. They throw a certain quantity of the berries into the kettle, and then pour a sufficient quantity of water on them so as to cover them to a depth of about a half a foot. They then boil the whole, stirring the grains about and rubbing them against the sides of he vessel in order that the wax may more easily come off. In a short time it floats on the water like fat, and is colleted with a spoon and strained through a coarse cloth to separate it from any impurities which might be mixed with it. When no more wax can be obtained they take the berries out with a skimmer and put others in the same water, but it must be entirely changed the second or third time, and in the meantime boiling water must be added as it evaporates, in order to avoid retarding the operation. When a considerable quantity of wax has been obtained by this means, it is lain on a cloth to drain off the water with which it is still mixed. It is then melted a second time, and is then formed into masses. Four pounds of berries yield about one of wax; that which is first obtained is generally yellow; but in later boilings it assumes a green color for the pellicle (pericarp) with which the kernel of the berry is covered. (From L’Ami de la Nature by Toscan, cited by Millspaugh.)

I’m ready now to go out and fetch my own bayberries and attempt to make a candle or two. Are you?

As I investigate information that I don’t know about but find in the researching of my novel, I’ll continue posting research results.


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THIS POST RECEIVED COMMENTS on our previous host site:

Justcallherhank from Northcarolina:
As I write I am boiling about 4.5 pounds of bayberries that my 8 year old son and I picked along the intracoastal waterway in North Carolina from the southern wax myrtle. We have extracted about 1/3 cup of wax from the berries thus far but am thinking that I need to have them in more water after reading your blog. The wax is indeed olive green and quite pleasant smelling. However, this is an involved and somewhat slow task. Because my son has been studying pioneer life and is now reading a fictional novel which takes place in colonial America, I thought he would appreciate learning a task that would have taken place during that time and that he could actually do today to better understand the way of life during that time. He hopes to create a small candle with the wax we are able to boil out by adding it to some beeswax (of course collecting beeswax would be a whole different venture that we won’t take on at this time, instead we will buy from a local beekeeper. Thank you for the indepth description of the wax boiling process!

Carolyn from Western Pennsylvania:
Thank you for your comment. Feedback is always appreciated. How did the candle project work put? Carolyn

Hitchhiker from Cincinnati, Ohio:
WOW! A bushel yields 4 lbs! — I filled 1 large paper (75% full) grocery bag and got less than a pint, here in Ohio.The plants were not wild but in a planting. I even used cheese cloth to squeeze the heated berries after the wax boiled to the top. The squeezing yielded about 10% of the final product. So I suggest a similar method for the processed berries. The cheese cloth method tended to be a bit wasteful. There must be a better way to squeeze and save the left-overs that don’t boil to the top. Also, my 3 inch diameter candle was too wide for my wick. I had to make a 1″ diameter candle to prevent the wick from drowning.

Note: the house smelled great during the boil! I hear the leaves can be used in potpourri (sp?). The root is dried and used as a herbal remedy that I did not try.

Carolyn from Pennsylvania:
It sounds like you had a good time, hitchhiker. Thank you for your comment! (Visit the Beanery Online Literary Magazine, Volume 2, at


1 Comment »

  1. My fellow on Facebook shared this link and I’m not dissapointed at all that I came to your blog.

    Comment by Liza — April 24, 2009 @ 11:28 am | Reply

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