I grew myrtle for several years, especially to use as a small tree or shrub in container fairy gardens. They have tiny, very glossy green leaves. I’ve been thinking of getting some started again, because I love them as topiaries, as shown in Jan Power’s photo above, mixed with some dainty ferns, succulents and blooming plants. She grows them as topiaries so well! (If you don’t know Jan’s beautiful artistic work or her books, visit her at Stonewell Herbs! It’s a treat!) I considered posting this in February, because it has a long history as an herb for love, and was held sacred to Venus. German brides carry a sprig of myrtle in their wedding bouquets. But then I decided if like me, you might want some topiaries for Valentines or a fairy garden in spring, you may need to act soon.
Here’s a photo of a much larger myrtle taken when we were in Tucson, where myrtle can actually stay outdoors and be used in the general landscape. Unfortunately for us, it is hardy outdoors only to Zone 9, but it makes a lovely potted plant indoors during the winter months and then lives happily outdoors when there’s no danger of freeze. I was totally surprised that a mature myrtle produces these pretty berries! It grows well in full sun with moist, but well-draining soil. I generally propagate new plants from cuttings, which is fairly easy, but since they have berries Myrtus communis can also be grown from seeds. Its name comes from the Greek word myron, or perfume. The leaves have often been used in potpourris.
Myrtle has also been a symbol of authority, and in ancient days high government officials wore wreaths made of its boughs on their heads. It was also a symbol of victory, woven with bay leaves into the crowns for winners of the Olympic games. The leaves were also dried and ground into a dusting powder for infants, and the berries were used as a hair dye.
Only recently, I discovered myrtle is also a culinary herb. I was reading “Delicious!” a novel about a woman with an extraordinary palate, able to discern distinct flavors even in minute amounts with multiple ingredients. In tasting one dish, she announced it contained hyssop and myrtle. Hyssop I understand because I cook with it often and use it in teas, but myrtle? So, I had to do some research. Turns out, myrtle has been used to flavor foods from the Stone Age! Especially popular in some areas of Italy, it is often placed over the coals when roasting meat to impart a special flavor. Whole pigs are cooked in pits lined with myrtle boughs, and chickens are stuffed with lemons and myrtle leaves before baking. In some places it is used as a substitute for bay. Obviously the potager needs a pot or two…or three!
So, once I get my plants underway, as I trim them into traditional topiary form, I certainly won’t let those trimmings go to waste. I can’t wait to taste a myrtle roasted chicken! And maybe I’ll try baking some myrtle biscuits or crackers!