Scent of Bayberry by Alice Morse Earle


Young mother contemplating her sleeping child in candlelight

The pungent and unique scent of the bayberry,



  



equally strong in leaf and berry, is to me one of the elements of the purity and sweetness of the air of our New England coast fields in autumn. It grows everywhere, green and cheerful, in sun-withered shore pastures, in poor bits of earth on our rocky coast, where it has few fellow field-tenants to crowd the ground. It is said that the highest efforts of memory are stimulated through our sense of smell, by the association of ideas with scents. That of bayberry, whenever I pass it, seems to awaken in me an hereditary memory, to recall a life of two centuries ago. I recall the autumns of trial and of promise in our early history, and the bayberry fields are peopled with children in Puritan garb, industriously gathering the tiny waxen fruit. Equally full of sentiment is the scent of my burning bayberry candles, which were made last autumn in an old colony town.

A Virginian governor, Robert Beverley (for the bayberry and its wax was known also in the South as myrtleberry wax), gave, perhaps, the clearest description of it: —
A pale green brittle wax of a curious green color, which by refining becomes almost transparent. Of this they made candles which are never greasy to the touch nor melt with lying in the hottest weather; neither does the snuff of these ever offend the smell, like that of a tallow candle; but instead of being disagreeable, if an accident puts a candle out, it yields a pleasant fragrancy to all that are in the room; insomuch that nice people often put them out on purpose to have the incense of the expiring snuff.

It is true that the balmy breath of the bayberry is exhaled even on its funeral pyre. A bayberry candle burns like incense; and I always think of its perfume as truly the incense to the household hearth-gods of an old New England home.

A natural, and apparently inexhaustible, material for candles was found in all the colonies in the waxy berries of the bayberry bush, which still grows in large quantities on our coasts. In the year 1748 a Swedish naturalist, Professor Kalm, came to America, and he wrote an account of the bayberry wax which I will quote in full: —
"There is a plant here from the berries of which they make a kind of wax or tallow, and for that reason the Swedes call it the tallow-shrub. The English call the same tree the candle-berry tree or bayberry bush; it grows abundantly in a wet soil, and seems to thrive particularly well in the neighborhood of the sea. The berries look as if flour had been strewed on them. They are gathered late in Autumn, being ripe about that time, and are thrown into a kettle or pot full of boiling water; by this means their fat melts out, floats at the top of the water, and may be skimmed off" into a vessel; with the skimming they go on till there is no tallow left. The tallow, as soon as it is congealed, looks like common tallow or wax, but has a dirty green color. By being melted over and refined it acquires a fine and transparent green color. This tallow is dearer than common tallow, but cheaper than wax. Candles of this do not easily bend, nor melt in summer as common candles do; they burn better and slower, nor do they cause any smoke, but yield rather an agreeable smell when they are extinquished. In Carolina they not only make candles out of the wax of the berries, but likewise sealing-wax."
Beverley, the historian of Virginia, wrote of the smell of burning bayberry tallow : —
"If an accident puts a candle out, it yields a pleasant fragrancy to all that are in the room; insomuch that nice people often put them out on purpose to have the incense of the expiring snuff."