Trees and Shrubs
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myrtle bush
Myrtus communis, variety 'Compacta' has more refined foliage, recommended for edging and formal hedges prone to chlorosis if overwatered

Common Myrtle / Roman Myrtle - Mirto - Mirtu / Mrtvina
(Myrtus communis)

The Myrtle (Myrtus) is a genus of one or two species of flowering plants in the family Myrtaceae, native to southern Europe and north Africa. They are evergreen shrubs or small trees, growing to 5 m tall. The leaves are entire, 3-5 cm long, with a pleasantly fragrant essential oil. The star-like flowers have five petals and sepals, and an amazingly large number of stamens. Petals are usually white, with globose blue-black (blueberry like) berries containing several seeds. The flowers are pollinated by insects, and the seeds dispersed by birds that feed on the berries.

Myrtus communis

Scientific classification

Kingdom:   Plantae
Division:   Magnoliophyta
Class:   Magnoliopsida
Order:   Myrtales
Family:   Myrtaceae
Genus:   MyrtusL.

Species

Myrtus communis L.
Myrtus nivellei Batt. & Trab.

Common or Roman myrtle (Myrtus communis) is widespread in the Mediterranean region and is also by far the most commonly cultivated of the myrtus. The other species, Saharan Myrtle (M. nivellei), is restricted to the Tassili n'Ajjer mountains in southern Algeria and the Tibesti Mountains in Chad, where it occurs in small areas of sparse relict woodland near the centre of the Sahara Desert; it is listed as an endangered species. However, some botanists are not convinced that M. nivellei is sufficiently distinct to be treated as a separate species.

Blooming Time

Summer. The ¾ inch white flowers are sweetly scented.

Culture

Myrtus communis do best in light shade to full sun. We use a soil mix consisting of 1 part peat moss to 2 parts loam to 1 part course sand or perlite. The plant is highly drought tolerant. The soil should be allowed to dry in-between waterings. Tip chlorosis is a problem if the soil does not drain well. Fertilize monthly during the growing season. Trim in early spring to keep a desired form.

Propagation

Myrtus communis are propagated by cuttings of partially ripened wood with a bottom temperature of 70° and by seed in spring.

Modern uses

Myrtle is another example of a spice finding no wide application because of its bitterness (see zedoary), despite the pleasant odour. Its culinary importance is limited to the region of origin: The fragrant macchia forests on the mountain slopes around the Mediterranean Sea.

Myrtle is a perfect firewood, transmitting a spicy, aromatic taste to any meat grilled thereover. Furthermore, meat or poultry may be wrapped with myrtle branches or the body cavities may be stuffed therewith; after broiling or roasting, the myrtle is to be removed. Foods flavoured with the smoke of myrtle are common in rural areas of Italy or Sardinia; rosemary may serve as a substitute. Interestingly, the same technique is also known in the Caribbean, where allspice leaves are employed for virtually the same purposes.

In the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, myrtle is also used to produce an aromatic liqueur called "Mirto"' by macerating it in alcohol. It is known as one of the national drinks of Sardinia. [1] There are two varieties of this drink: the "Mirto Rosso" (red) produced by macerating the berries, and the "Mirto Bianco" (white) produced from the leaves.

leaf close-upDried myrtle leaves are readily available in most Western countries; any food broiled over charcoal may be flavoured simply by repeatedly sprinkling a handful of the leaves over the glowing coal. Rosemary, thyme and other robust herbs (even eucalypt) may also be tried.

Uses in myth and ritual

In Jewish liturgy, it is one of the four sacred plants of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, rationalized as for its pleasant aroma. The leaves are held by the worshippers in the synagogue during the prayers.

In Greek mythology and ritual the myrtle was sacred to the goddesses Aphrodite [2] and also Demeter: Artemidorus asserts that in interpreting dreams “a myrtle garland signifies the same as an olive garland, except that it is especially auspicious for farmers because of Demeter and for women because of Aphrodite. For the plant is sacred to both goddesses.” [3] Pausanias explains that one of the Graces in the sanctuary at Elis holds a myrtle branch because “the rose and the myrtle are sacred to Aphrodite and connected with the story of Adonis, while the Graces are of all deities the nearest related to Aphrodite.” Myrtle is the garland of Iacchus, according to Aristophanes, [4] and of the victors at the Theban Iolaea, held in honour of the Theban hero Iolaus.[5]

In Rome, Virgil explains that “the poplar is most dear to Alcides, the vine to Bacchus, the myrtle to lovely Venus, and his own laurel to Phoebus.” [6] At the Veneralia, women bathed wearing crowns woven of myrtle branches, and myrtle was used in wedding rituals

In pagan and wicca rituals, myrtle is commonly and sacred to Beltane (May Day).

Ancient medicinal uses

"The myrtle occupies a prominent place in the writings of Hippocrates, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, and the Arabian writers"--Pharmacographia Indica 1891 edition, London.

Related plants

Many other related species native to South America, New Zealand and elsewhere, previously classified in a wider interpretation of the genus Myrtus, are now treated in other genera, Eugenia, Lophomyrtus, Luma, Rhodomyrtus, Syzygium, Ugni, and at least a dozen other genera. The name "myrtle" is also used to refer to unrelated plants in several other genera: "Crepe myrtle" (Lagerstroemia, Lythraceae), "Wax myrtle" (Myrica, Myricaceae), and "Myrtle" or "Creeping myrtle" (Vinca, Apocynaceae).

Footnotes:

  1. Liquore di mirto (Italian). Italian Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2007-06-18 - http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquore_di_mirto.
  2. V. Pirenne-Delforge, “Épithètes cultuelles et interpretation philosophique: à propos d’Aphrodite Ourania et Pandémos à Athènes.” AntCl 57 (1980::142-57) p. 413.
  3. Artemidorus, Oneirocritica, I.77. (translation of Hugh G. Evelyn-White) - http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hugh_G._Evelyn-White&action=editredlink.
  4. Aristophanes, The Frogs, the Iacchus chorus, 330 ff - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Frogs.
  5. Pindar, Isthmian Ode IV - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pindar.
  6. Virgil, Eclogue VII.61-63 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eclogue.
Sources:
  • Text - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myrtle
  • http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Myrt_com.html
  • Text and top image - http://www.myrtus-communis.de/, from Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages
  • Text and image - http://www.plantoftheweek.org/week125.shtml
  • Images - http://cals.arizona.edu/pima/gardening/aridplants/Myrtus_communis.html

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Created: Wednesday, February 27, 2008; Last updated: Sunday, October 14, 2012
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