One might well describe myrtle … and it might be better to refer to this shrub by its proper botanical name of Myrtus … as ‘the vanishing genus’.
For all but two of the nearly 600 supposed species of plants which were once included in, or proposed for inclusion in this genus have either been transferred to different genera or are now regarded as synonyms for other plants. The two remaining species recognised by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in the genus are Myrtus communis and Myrtus nivellei. And of these two, the contemporary gardener will probably only ever encounter one - Myrtus communis.
Myrtus communis, commonly known as myrtle, is native to the Mediterranean region of southern Europe. Both the Ancient Greeks and the Romans called the plant Myrtus, and can be either an evergreen shrub … with several stems springing above ground from the roots … or a tree, with a single stem or trunk. It is usually grown nowadays as an ornamental plant in parks and gardens, often being used for hedging because of its obliging habit of carrying small leaves which can be cleanly cut, leaving it neat and tidy-looking after having been trimmed. In hedges, myrtle seldom gets the chance to flower, for the shearing process trims off most of the buds: but in the garden, or when grown as a specimen plant in a park, myrtle will produce a plethora of small, white, sweet-scented, star-like flowers in late summer, provided the summer months have been … by United Kingdom standards … pretty hot. Since myrtle is also susceptible to winter frosts … not really surprising in a plant which is happiest near the Mediterranean Sea … it doesn’t usually thrive well in Scotland.
Italians use myrtle in a number of culinary ways. In Sardinia and Corsica they soak myrtle berries in alcohol to produce a drink called mirto, either mirto rosso or mirto bianco according to whether the more common black berries or the less common yellow berries have been used. Mirto bianco is sometimes produced by macerating the leaves in alcohol. The secret lies in what are called ‘the essential oils’ - natural oils typically obtained by distillation and having the characteristic odour of the plant or other source from which they are extracted. Sprigs of myrtle are often used in Italy in the preparation of pork dishes … much as we might use mint … and myrtle berries, dried and ground, can be used as a substitute for pepper. It is this ‘pepper’ which give Mortadella sausages their distinctive flavour.
Unsurprisingly, myrtle has a place in herbal medicine like most plants from which essential oils can be extracted. For at least the last five millennia, myrtle has been thought to relieve fevers and aches, the reason for this belief being the high levels of salicylic acid which the plant contains; we recognise salicylic acid as the basis of aspirin. There is also a long-standing tradition in many southern European countries of using myrtle to treat sinus infections, although I must point out that there is very little evidence to substantiate this latter belief. As ever, I merely report these matters and do not advocate that you, gentle reader, should experiment.
The scent of myrtle flowers and sprigs of the leaves has resulted in its widespread use across Europe in wedding bouquets; and myrtle is grown commercially for the floristry industry. Queen Victoria’s wedding bouquet contained a sprig of myrtle, possibly at her German husband’s behest; and since that day … 10 February 1840 … sprigs of myrtle have been included in all royal wedding bouquets. And since our ancestors knew all about myrtle’s association with beauty, purity and love, it’s still a good plant for all wedding celebrations.