Myrtle is a mythical herb with plenty of down to earth uses.
What comes to mind at the mention of myrtle? Topiary, or hedging, or maybe a sprig in a bride’s bouquet?
It is, in fact, one of our most ancient herbs, being sacred to both Aphrodite (later Venus) and Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and overseer 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 that occur at the end of summer followed by blue-purple berries. The bees and butterflies love the flowers and the birds eat the berries. Common myrtle can grow up to 2m high and wide but the dwarf myrtle (Myrtus communis nana) only reaches 1m by 80cm. It grows extremely slowly.
• Where: in sun or partial shade, sheltered from cold winds, in soil that drains well. It does not tolerate water-logged soil.
• How: it is a very undemanding plant that needs moderate watering because over-watering 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 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 outside ulcers. A compress of warmed myrtle sprigs can ease bruises, strains and sprains.
Internally, a myrtle infusion is reputed to relieve cold, chest infections, and sinusitis and urinary tract infections. A myrtle bath helps soothe tired muscles.
Myrtle for master-chef’s
The leaves are used in cooking, like bay leaf. The light citrus flavour pairs well with pork, bacon, veal and lamb and is also used 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 garnish in salads, dessert and drinks.
In the home
Use sprigs in pot pourri or to perfume cupboards; good for discouraging fish moths and moths.
The leaves of love
From Roman times myrtle has been regarded as a symbol of love and used in wedding bouquets in Europe, and even Britain. At the last royal wedding, the sprig of myrtle in Kate’s bouquet, reputedly originated from Queen Victoria’s wedding bouquet. The myrtle sprig from Queen Victoria’s bouquet was planted as a slip and it has become tradition to include sprigs from this original plant in royal wedding bouquets.
Herb project – myrtle topiary
Herb gardens wax and wane with the seasons. Using topiary provides a strong architectural element that is permanent and decorative without being fussy.
Myrtle, especially dwarf myrtle, is an ideal topiary plant because it is slow growing, with dense growth and small leaves. It is easy to clip into a geometric shape, such as a ball or cone or even a hedge.
Topiary in pots makes an immediate impact and can be used as a focal point to frame an entrance or emphasize the garden design.
Making a myrtle pot topiary
• Tools needed: secateurs, sharp scissors, shears and plastic ties.
• Choose a well sized pot that matches the shape of the plant as well as the style of the herb garden.
• The potting soil should consist of equal parts of compost, garden soil and organic material like peanut shells and should drain easily.
• Start with an existing plant. Clip it back until it is slightly smaller than the desired topiary and then cut the new growth into the shape you want.
• Many garden centres supply topiary frames made from galvanized wire. Eventually the growth with conceal the wire. This helps if several plants need to be clipped to a uniform size and shape.
• When shaping, stand back from time to time to ensure that the shape is evenly balanced and central. Do not worry if there are gaps or holes in the early stages, the plant will fill in as it grows.
• Water pots regularly (every second or third day) and fertilise every six weeks as watering leaches out the nutrients.
• Once the myrtle reaches the shape you want, clip with sharp kitchen scissor to maintain its crisp outline.
Hedging: To establish a low growing hedge position individual plants about 50cm apart. They will grow together to form a dense hedge that will only need clipping two or three times a year.