What comes to mind at the mention of myrtle? Topiary, or hedging, or maybe a sprig in a bride’s bouquet? Myrtle is, in fact, one of our most ancient herbs, and was sacred to the Greek goddess Aphrodite and her equivalent Roman goddess Venus, as well as to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and of the fertility of the earth. Not many herbs are sacred to two goddesses, and the link between harvest and fertility should make myrtle a must for any herb garden! Like other favourite herbs, sweet smelling myrtle is native to the Mediterranean, where it is mainly cultivated for its essential oil which is used in perfume, cosmetics and soap. The young leaves are gathered in spring.
Making a place for myrtle
If your imagination has been fired up, here are the answers to what, where, how and why to grow myrtle:
- What: Myrtle (Myrtus communis) is a small, bushy, evergreen shrub with small, shiny-green fragrant leaves and a profusion of creamy-white puff flowers at the end of summer – followed by blue-purple berries. Bees and butterflies love the flowers and birds eat the berries. Common myrtle can grow up to 2 m high and wide, but the dwarf myrtle (Myrtus communis nana) only reaches 1 m by 80 cm. It grows extremely slowly. • Where: in sun or partial shade, sheltered from cold winds, and in soil that drains well. It does not tolerate water-logged soil.
- How: it is an undemanding plant, but needs moderate watering because overwatering can cause chlorosis. Although frost-hardy, it should be sheltered from cold, dry winds. Fertilise in spring and again in autumn.
- Why: the leaves, flowers and berries have medicinal, culinary and other household uses. It is a valuable pest repelling plant because of the strongly aromatic leaves. The leaves can also be used to make natural insect-repellent sprays. Aesthetically, clipped myrtle hedges and topiary provide structure in a garden.
Myrtle leaves are astringent, tonic and antiseptic. Use myrtle infusion to clean and heal external wounds like scratches, bites, and cuts – as well as external ulcers. A compress of warmed myrtle sprigs can ease bruises, strains and sprains. Internally, a myrtle infusion is reputed to relieve colds, chest infections, sinusitis and urinary-tract infections. A myrtle bath helps soothe tired muscles.
Myrtle for master chefs
The leaves are used in cooking, like bay leaf. The slight citrus flavour pairs well with pork, bacon, veal and lamb; and is also useful in marinades and soups. Discard the leaves after cooking. The dried leaves have a less intense flavour and are ground as a rub for pork chops or roast. The dried berries are spicy and substitute for ground black pepper. They also sweeten the breath. Use the flowers as a garnish in salads, desserts and drinks.
In the home
Use sprigs in pot pourri or to perfume cupboards; it is also good for discouraging fish-moths and moths.
The leaves of love
Since the times of ancient Rome, myrtle has been regarded as a symbol of love and has been used in wedding bouquets in Europe, including Britain. At the last royal wedding, the sprig of myrtle in the Duchess of Cambridge’s bouquet reputedly originated in Queen Victoria’s wedding bouquet. The myrtle sprig from Queen Victoria’s bouquet was planted as a slip, and it has become traditional to include sprigs from this original plant in royal-wedding bouquets.