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Wisconsin Plant of the Week

Myrica gale L.

Myricaceae (Wax-myrtle or Bayberry Family)

Common Name:

sweet gale

08/27/2001

Sweet gale is a low deciduous shrub that grows in cool, moist areas along rocky shores, in shallow water, bogs, fens and sedge meadows. It tolerates some shade and pH from 5 to 8, although in Wisconsin itís limited by temperature to the more acidic conditions of the north.

The bayberry family includes aromatic shrubs and trees, with alternate leaves, unisexual flowers in catkins and small waxy fruit. Wisconsin has only two species in the family -- sweet gale and sweet fern (Comptonia). Like the legumes and alders, although to a lesser extent, the bayberry family supports nitrogen fixing bacteria in root nodules.  The bacteria take nitrogen gas from the air and accumulate it as nitrate, which is accessible to all plants, in the soil.

Sweet gale is bushy with very dark bark and usually less than 2 m tall.  The male and female flowers are on separate plants and, like most wind-pollinated species, sweet gale flowers on last yearís twigs before this yearís leaves expand. Male catkins are short spikes attached directly to the twig.  Female catkins develop small waxy nutlets (in the photo) with tiny orange resin dots.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 3 to 6 cm long, wedge shaped at the base and rounded at the tip with pinnate veins.  The leaf margin is smooth, or toothed only at the tip, and the undersides are pale with resin dots.   Sweet gale is easy to distinguish among other bog shrubs by its blue-green color.

The essential oil in the leaves and fruit repels biting midges and is used in candle making. Sweet gale is the symbol on the badge for the Scot clan Campbell and is used as a substitute for hops to flavor beer.

  • Origin of the name: Myrica, Latin name for the tamarisk tree, Gk., murixa, to anoint with oil; gale, ?
  • Range:  Circumboreal; in N. Amer. s. to NJ, OR and disjunct in the Mts of NC
  • WI Range:  North of the Tension Zone
  • Common associates: alder, labrador tea
  • Wetland Indicator Status: OBL
  • Coefficient of Conservatism: C = (outside range) (S&W), C = 6 (MI)
     
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