Tucked away in the Northeast corner of the Physic Garden is a large but relatively inconspicuous bush. This is the Common Myrtle, Myrtis communis, which in spite of its appearance has not only a spectacular history of myth and ritual but also an interesting place in contemporary life.
Now, in November the plant is in full fruit, bearing round blue-black berries which contain several seeds dispersed by grateful birds that eat the berries.
Myrtle is a native of the Mediterranean region and is an evergreen shrub or small tree. The leaves are entire and about 2 inches long. They contain a fragrant essential oil. The white flowers are attractive, star shaped with five petals and numerous long stamens. It is widely cultivated in parks and gardens.
Myrtle featured in both Greek and Roman mythology. In the former it was sacred to the goddesses Aphrodite and Demeter and in the latter Virgil speaks of the plant as being dear to lovely Venus. It also featured in Jewish liturgy as one of the four sacred plants at the Feast of the Tabernacles.
The Romans were particularly fond of Myrtle and it was an indispensable feature of their gardens. So much so that they introduced it to areas wherever they settled. However, in Britain it would not have proved hardy and it was not until Sir Walter Raleigh returned from Spain in 1585 that it was reintroduced, supposedly by him, to England. During the 17th and 18th centuries tender Myrtles were cossetted in orangeries during the winter months and brought out to enjoy summers in the garden. Our Myrtle so far has survived our weather being sheltered by the micro climate provided by the Physic Garden’s walls.
Myrtle is used in cooking especially in the Mediterranean. The berries have been used as a pepper substitute and also contribute to the distinctive flavour of Mortadella sausage. In medicine, due to its high levels of salicylic acid it was used by ancient physicians for relief of pain and fever and occupies a prominent place in the writings of Dioscorides et al.
A general European custom includes Myrtle in wedding bouquets. A cutting from Queen Victoria’s wedding bouquet flourishes in a churchyard at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight and sprigs of it have been continually included in royal wedding bouquets.
We would be delighted to supply Myrtle sprigs to any bride wishing to perpetuate this tradition. Please ask the duty warden or one of the gardeners.