Myrica californica, most commonly called Pacific wax myrtle, is an evergreen shrub that grows from 10-30 feet tall and 10-12-feet wide. It is native to the coast and coastal valleys from Vancouver Island to the Santa Monica Mountains in Sunset zones 14-24. It is without a doubt one of the most versatile, best looking, and truly adaptable large natives for our Sonoma County gardens.
However, the multi-trunked wax myrtle doesn’t require regular irrigation – it performs in the most demanding situations, such as along freeways. You also see it hiding masonry walls and foundations or screening utility poles and facilities around the County. It has earned its reputation as one of the hardiest plants at the Sea Ranch, the private community along Sonoma’s north coast. Here, the winds lash the site with incredible force and blast the vegetation with salt spray and sand. The wax myrtle either stands tall to screen undesirable views or crouches low in front of the hedgerows as a sturdy windbreak. A stand of 20-foot wax myrtles combats the buffeting winds on the headlands at Mackerrick State Park north of Ft. Bragg.
Some sources suggest that Myrica californica can be pruned and trained as a towering single-trunked tree. But Travis Woodard, Manager of Operations at Urban Tree Farm, warns that due to its soft wood and dense foliage, its top is in danger of snapping off in the wind-- somewhat like a sail that is too heavy for its mast.
The wax myrtle is an attractive shrub, with its ascending branches, upright trunks and always-presentable foliage. Its bark is smooth and dark gray or light brown on the surface. Its narrow, medium to dark-green, glossy leaves are serrated and are slightly sticky and fragrant when crushed. (Myrica is actually the ancient name for an aromatic shrub.) The inconspicuous flowers range from red to green. The purple fruit are single-seeded berries, which ripen in the autumn and fall to the ground in the early winter, and attract birds such as flickers, finches and robins. The berries are coated with white wax, which can be extracted from the fruit and made into scented candles and soap. However, this species produces much less than other bayberries, so is rarely used for this purpose.
Wax myrtles are adaptable. They respond favorably to light or heavy pruning or can be sheared to create a formal hedge. They can thrive in wet soil; some say even a rain garden, provided there is excellent drainage. Paradoxically, the shrubs are also drought tolerant and, like most natives, can get by on normal rainfall once they are established. However, the shrub will retain a fresher appearance with regular watering and some deep soakings during a hot spell. UCCE’s Water Use Classification of Landscape Species (WUCOLS) lists Myrica californica as requiring a low amount of water in coastal regions and a moderate amount in inland valleys. The shrubs are adaptable to sandy, loamy or clay soil.
The Pacific wax myrtle grows best in full, open sunlight in coastal areas and prefers afternoon shade inland. It tolerates some continued shade, but shrubs that grow in this environment tend to lose some of their lush foliage as they continually reach for the light The shrub is cold tolerant to 25° F in a container and 20° in the ground.
The plants are generally long-lived. However, they can suffer from pests such as thrips, spider mites and whiteflies, and diseases such as limb and trunk rot. Deer generally ignore the shrubs. For a complete listing of possible predators, click on “Pest Management” on this website.
By all standards, Myrica californica is a top plant for Sonoma County gardens. It can serve as dependable buffer against powerful winds, an elegant specimen to soften or hide an unsightly view or as a formal or informal solid hedge. With its clean, glossy evergreen foliage, it looks great any season of the year. And as a California native, it is naturally suited to our climate. It can grow in sun or shade, poor or amended soil and needs little maintenance. Best of all, the shrub can get along with a low amount of water, which is increasingly important as we learn to protect this valuable resource.
Myrica californica can generally be found in local nurseries, including California Flora Nursery, Harmony Farm Supply and Nursery, Mostly Natives Nursery, Sonoma Horticultural Nursery, Sonoma Mission Garden and Urban Tree Farm.