Thursday, August 21, 2014

Making Bayberry Candles

Last summer Gillian went off to Colonial Survivor summer Camp at the Connecticut River Museum and had a great time building stone walls, tending the chickens, erecting a post and beam structure, and dying textiles with plants they collected on site. One thing they did not try was making bayberry candles from real bayberries. Bayberry candles were made by the colonists because they were cleaner burning and better scented than the candles made from tallow, or animal fat. Colonist folklore states that if you light a new bayberry candle on Christmas Eve or New Year's, you’ll have health, wealth and prosperity in the coming year. The adage reads: A bayberry candle burnt to the socket brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket.

In Connecticut, we have the northern bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica. It is not ideal for wax extraction, as it produces much less than the southern bayberry, but it's what I have to work with. The bushes are dioecious, meaning there needs to be male bushes to pollinate and set the fruit on the female bushes.They are a dense-branching deciduous shrub, native to North America where it is primarily found growing along the eastern coast (including seashore) from Newfoundland to North Carolina. We often find them used in landscaping applications in parking lots because they form attractive thickets and hedges. The blue-grey berries are clustered along the branches where the flowers were pollinated. We also gather the mildly fragrant leaves to press dry and use as a substitute to commercial bay leaves; we use more bayberry leaves in a recipe as their flavor is not as strong as commercial bay leaves.

On a recent trip over to Long Island, we were picking beach plums and I noticed the bayberries seemed especially abundant, and I gathered a gallon of them to take home. My hands were coated with their wax and fragrance for the rest of the day, as I just grabbed the clusters of berries and pulled them into a bucket.

It takes about 15 pounds of bayberries to render 1 pound of wax, so I knew I would not get too much wax from my one gallon. I shook the berries in a mesh sieve to get some of the smaller debris out, then placed them in a large pot with some water. I brought the pot up to a boil, and then simmered the berries for 15 minutes. The berries and most of the sticks and stems will sink, while the wax will float up to the surface of the water. I then ladled and strained the hot wax through an old jelly bag to remove more of the debris and dirt. I let the wax and some of the hot water cool in a plastic container, where the wax floated to the top and hardened. The wax block was easy to pop out and dry off, and there was about 1/3 cup of fragrant, green wax. Off to the craft store, where I purchased some votive molds, wicks, and unscented candle wax to mix with the bayberry wax. The bayberry wax is a bit weak and prone to discoloration and warping over time, so I chose to make  short votives and fortify the wax with plain wax. With my little bit of bayberry wax mixed with plain wax, I managed to pour three candles which we will burn on Christmas Eve into Christmas Day day for abundance and blessings, and for the memories of a summer day on Long Island gathering bayberries in the sun.


julia.angelina said...

This is exciting, I collected a ziplock bag of them at the shore the other day and am hoping to go back for more next weekend. I'd like enough to mix with beeswax for my own bayberry candle to burn over the Yuletide! And the leaves are so nice and fragrant, too.

I go to the shore in central NJ and technically southern bayberry is found there as well, though I haven't seen any.

Alex said...

Thanks for the tutorial! Can you tell me what type of wick you used? I collected bayberries and would like to do a beeswax blend as well.

The 3 Foragers said...

I got some pre-waxed wicks that were already attached to a metal disk. Since I have never made candles before, I thought I would go with what looked easiest. I used a bit of hot wax to "glue" the metal disk to the bottom of the mold, then "glued" the top of the wick to a toothpick that I laid across the top of the mold. Then I pored in the hot wax and tried to center the wick in the candle by moving the toothpick around as the candle cooled.

Kyle Raleigh said...

I live in CT. Do you know of any locations in CT where I could collect some northern bayberries once they are ripe?

The 3 Foragers said...

Bayberries grow along the shore and are commonly landscaped in parking lots. Our local hospital has a bunch around the lowest parking lot near the river. They have been ready to collect since August, and I think they should still be out there now in October, but might have some bugs or spiders in the berry clusters.