Pacific Wax Myrtle trees provide habitat, food and beauty to coastal California regions throughout the seasons and over years. Evergreen myrtle trees bloom in March or April and then burst out with brownish purplish berries in September. The dense foliage and twisting branches provide animals with a windbreak in cooler, stormy winter months. Even in death, the wood remains in valley forests as ghost trees that birds use for perching and roosting.
The waxy name of the tree refers to a whitish coating that covers the berries or nutlets. Underneath the wax, the berries are a hidden purple. Early American colonists on the East Coast collected the wax of a similar myrtle, the bayberry, to make fragrant candles.
Myrtle trees grow in the Middle East, Egypt and around the Mediterranean, so the word "myrtle" has an old origin from Greek, myrtos, a bitter, aromatic resin, and the Arabic word for bitter. The word myrtle is closely related to myrrh, one of the fragrant gifts the Magi gave to Jesus, even though the myrtle tree and the tree that produces myrrh are in two different scientific families.
Even the Bible refers to myrtle trees as in Isaiah 55:13, "instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree," a shrub well-loved for its fragrance. In the ancient Greek city of Sida, residents treasured a myrtle tree where the goddess Artemis, disguised as a hare, was said to take refuge.
The myrtle tree, then, manages to symbolize aspects of Easter, Christmas and Halloween. The hare story fits with Easter. The Christmas association with myrrh makes me think of the tree as a symbol for the last part of the year. Then thinking of the old trees haunting California forests as ghosts conjures up a Halloween image.
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