Description & Overview
Sweetgale is a low, spreading shrub that has the appearance of a small, shrubby willow. Pink catkins bloom in spring, followed by nutlets that persist into winter. The dark green foliage is aromatic when crushed.
In a symbiotic relationship, it cooperates with a mycelium in its roots to be able to fix nitrogen.
Sweetgale is a native Wisconsin shrub naturally found in the northern 1/3 of the state. It inhabits shorelines, acidic lakes, bogs, and streams where the soil is acidic and wet. As a bonus, roots cooperate with mycelium to fix nitrogen in the soil. This plant needs at least one male per grouping for pollination.
To be honest, this plant is generally for the native plant enthusiast. This is to say, you would be hard-pressed to find an appropriate site in a modern, residential landscape situation because of its sprawling and suckering nature.
That said, Sweetgale is an excellent choice for a restoration project within its niche, as its tendency to sucker would help to populate an area in a timely fashion while its ability to fix nitrogen enriches the soil. Suckers mean roots, and more roots, in addition to a love of wet soil, Sweetgale is an excellent candidate for stabilizing banks and shorelines.
In northern Wisconsin, with its moist and typically rich, acidic soils, Sweetgale would be right at home. If you have a cabin on a lake, Sweetgale would do well planted along the edge. Likewise, it would work well planted as a barrier or a hedge in moist to wet areas.
Sweetgale is the favorite food of beavers and provides good habitat and cover for waterfowl and songbirds such as Ring-necked Ducks, Swamp Sparrows, Tree Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and even salmon.
It is a host plant, meaning it provides food and shelter to the larval form of the Blueberry Dart (Coenophila opacifrons), Poecila Sphinx (Sphinx poecila), Apple Sphinx (Sphinx gordius), Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix), Ruby Tiger Moth (Phragmatobia fuliginosa), Red-fronted Emerald (Nemoria rubrifrontaria), Chain-dotted Geometer (Cingilia catenaria), Rheumaptera hastata, and White-marked Tussock Moth (Orgyia leucostigma).
This plant shouldn’t need any pruning.
Deer Resistant: Yes
Rabbit Resistant: Yes
Deer will browse the foliage. Beavers may sometimes feed on the plant and use cut stems as a building material for lodges and dams.
Aphids may visit but they can be removed with a strong blast of water.
The genus Myrica comes from the Greek name for tamarisk. The specific epithet gale is an old name with an unknown origin.
Indigenous people had several uses for Sweetgale. The Ojibwe boiled the seed to create a yellow dye. The Potawatomi burned the plant to make a smudge to repel mosquitos, as well as lining the basket for picking blueberries to prevent spoilage.
Back in the day, Sweetgale was a traditional component of royal wedding bouquets. Queen Victoria was given a sprig of Sweetgale, which she then planted. Her daughter grew some of the plants and put them into her wedding bouquet, creating a tradition that was most recently used in the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding to Prince William.
On a small scale, Myrica species have a waxy coating on their leaves and ‘berries’ which were extracted to make aromatic candles. Unfortunately, Sweetgale does not produce enough wax to make this a viable option for large-scale wax production.
Modern resources state that dried nutlets can be used as a seasoning or spice. (Elias, T. S., & Dykeman, P. A. (2009). Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods (p. 176). Sterling.) Plants should not be used or consumed by expecting or soon-to-be-expecting mothers.
For you plant nerds: While typically dioecious, this species has been known to be monoecious and even change sex from year to year.
One study showed that extracts from the fruits and leaves exhibited allelopathic against different plants, including Fallopia x bohemica, Bohemian Knotweed; a highly invasive, non-native plant that has been found in Wisconsin.
If fragrance is the name of your game, then try pairing Sweetgale with Carolina Allspice, Yarrow, Roses, Lavender, Catmint, Montrose White Calamint, Sweet Black-eyed Susan, Fragrant Sumac, Northern Bayberry, Wild Bergamot, Lilacs, and Koreanspice Viburnum.