By Vera Taylor
Until recently, I was a gardener who mainly chose the plants to go in my yard plot because they were given to me, they were cuttings appropriated from public places (I’m sure the bank doesn’t mind that I got my start on purple heart from its bed), or they were 75-percent-off distressed plants dragged home from our local box store.
But that haphazard gardening style has taken a turn, mostly likely because I let it slip that pulling weeds put me in a meditative Zen state. I accepted the post of being in charge of the Native Plant Garden at Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee Refuge in Mississippi.
Sweet pepperbush blooming (Photo: USFWS)
You know what they say. “Fools rush in …” That might describe my agreeing to take on this task. It isn’t just a learning curve, but more like a corkscrew – in terms of my knowledge of native plants. Fortunately, I enjoy the process of growing plants and learning about new species.
The first plant I became acquainted with was a rather plain Jane. However, it serves as a backbone in the garden, particularly as a screening plant. It is the wax myrtle, an evergreen shrub or small tree. Despite this plant’s unprepossessing look, it has an interesting backstory.
The wax myrtle, aka Southern bayberry or candleberry, held a prominent place in ensuring that early American colonists’ homes did not offend guests with terrible pet and cooking odors, or were not bothered by pesky insects. The colonists used the waxy berries to make scented candles, and, even though not scientifically proven, some swore that the leaves and branches kept fleas and cockroaches at bay. The leaves contain yellow and orange glands that produce oil with a fragrant scent; the yellow can be used as a dye. It’s important to know that the oils on the leaves, if they catch fire, might cause the tree to do a pretty good imitation of Moses’ burning bush.
The wax myrtle is also a winter food supply for many migrating birds and some small mammals. It is a host plant for a few caterpillars, too. One of these is the most toxic stinging caterpillar in the United States, which turns into the Southern flannel moth. It seems you can’t judge a plant by its leaves.
I make no guarantees that everything you’ve just read is scientifically accurate, and I can only reveal my sources’ initials: w.w.w.
Keep an eye out for a Noxubee Native Plant Garden work day. Bring your yoga mat or stool and be prepared to join me for a morning of blissful meditation. When you see me, I’ll be in the weeds – literally and figuratively.
Vera Taylor is a member of the Friends of Noxubee Refuge. This article is adapted from one that appeared in the Friends group’s June 2012 Noxubee Notes newsletter.