Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Wax Myrtle

This week's plant and the third sign encountered along the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest is the Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera). This plant can grow as a shrub a few feet off the ground or up to a 25-foot tall tree.

According to Richard D. Porcher and Douglas A. Rayner in A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina, "Myrtle Beach, SC, gets its name from this plant. The berries are covered with wax that was/is used to make fragrant candles. The wax may be irritating to some people. Wax myrtle is planted as an ornamental. The powdered root bark was an ingredient in 'composition powder' once used as a folk remedy for chills and colds; the root bark was used to make an astringent tea and emetic." For all those out there competing in QUEST or Quiz Bowl, "emetic" is something taken to induce vomitting. However, between August and October, the small, whitish-blue berries are a crowd favorite with the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata) community!

From The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds (P. R. Ehrlich, D. S. Dobkn, and D. Wheye; p. 519), "Many berries, such as those of wax myrtle and bayberry bushes, have a waxy coating. Waxes are a chemical grab-bag of waterproof organic materials that are solid at room temperature. Few animals can digest them, but some birds can turn the trick." One of those birds is the Yellow-rumped Warbler. "Recent investigations have shown that Yellow-rumped Warblers have evolved the appropriate enzymes to diges wax. This ability is probably why Yellow-rumped Warblers can overwinter farterh north than most wood warblers; Yellow-rumps can gain energy from the coatings of berries that are indigestible to the others."

There are plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers in our area this time of year and can be identified by the distinctive yellow patch on their rump (between the back and the tail). Now you know another bird that you can identify during next week's Great Backyard Bird Count!

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