Well adapted to salt spray and soils ranging from droughted to drenched, this deciduous shrub is nearly ubiquitous throughout its native range along eastern coastal North America. Its tolerance to nutrient-poor soils is owed to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live within its root system and improve the soil nutrition by making nitrogen bioavailable for the bayberry and other surrounding plant species.
Small bayberry bushes attract many birds, being a source of food for species such as the wild turkey and northern bobwhite quail. These berries are only produced by female plants, which bear them in the late summer and autumn after flowering throughout the spring. They have been boiled for use as a fever treatment by the Choctaw Indigenous peoples, who pioneered the herbalist use of bayberry that continued into the 20th century. Further, their waxy green leaves provide important cover and habitat for many bird species and give off a distinct fragrance when crushed. This scent may be recognizable from bayberry candles, which are traditionally made by boiling the fruits and extracting their wax coating.