The name Myrtle is derived from the Greek word myrrh, which became a general word to refer to perfume, which is apt as the Myrtle flower can produce a lovely essential oil with an intense fragrance.
The myrtle tree comes from the Myrtus genus of the Myrtaceae family, created in 1753 by Linnaeus. While around 600 species of plants were originally part of the genus, all but three have been moved to other genera.
There are three species in the Myrtus genus, Myrtus communis, Myrtus nivellei, and Myrtus phyllireaefolia.
These plants are found in many places, including South America, parts of the Mediterranean, Asia, and North Africa.
Continue reading to discover more about this enigmatic plant, its history, how we use it today, how it was used historically, and how you can grow your own myrtle.
At a Glance: What You Should Know about Myrtle
Myrtle flowers are extremely fragrant, and help attract a huge number of pollinators into the garden.
They are also extremely versatile plants in their own right. While they particularly enjoy tropical conditions, these plants will adapt to a range of places and varying conditions.
They will even thrive inside, if you’d prefer to add greenery and even fragrance indoors.
Most of the myrtle trees are classed as shrubs, and the majority are evergreen, making them a good option for places which get much colder temperatures in the winter.
Though, they will need winter protection, whether that consists of fleece or bringing them inside, as very harsh winters will kill off myrtle plants.
They have also been part of the bedrock of some rituals for centuries, and play a big role in tradition. This has also meant a lot of the myrtle plants are part of mythology.
Not only that, but we’ve also found a lot of medicinal and cosmetic uses for the myrtle, which only cements their popularity.
The flowers themselves come in shades of purple, pink, and white. They are relatively small, and the flowers are followed by berries.
It’s the flowers that produce the essential oil, which in itself has a range of beneficial properties.
The flowers are usually symbolic of love and the goddesses of love, such as Aphrodite, Venus, and Demeter. In Roman culture, these flowers were usually included in bridal wreaths.
In a portrait of Queen Victoria in her wedding dress by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, she wears a crown of myrtle.
Myrtle Flowers in Culture
Ovid’s Myrrha Origin Myth
There is a myth surrounding the myrtle plant and how it came to be. There are several versions, but for the purposes of this article, Ovid’s version is the one included.
Myrrha was a princess of Cyprus, and – unfortunately – was in love with her father. Cupid wasn’t the culprit for this, though he has been in other myths.
It was said that the Furies, the deities of vengeance, were responsible.
Overcome by warring shame and desire, she attempted to kill herself, but was unsuccessful. Her nurse found her, and agreed to help her if she promised not to try it again.
The nurse told her father of a mysterious admirer. (You can probably see where this is going.) The king had an affair with Myrrha in complete darkness, unaware that it was his daughter.
Overcome with curiosity, one night he brought in a lamp, and when he saw who it was, he tried to kill her.
Myrrha fled, and walked for nine months, and desperate, she prayed to the gods. Really, she probably should have done that to begin with. They took pity on her, and transformed her into the myrrh tree, and the sap was her tears.
Later, Adonis was born from the tree, freed by Lucina.
Myrtle in Greece and Rome
Myrtle flowers were often used as part of love potions, due to their associations with love and virtue (see also Myrtle Flower Meaning And Symbolism).
These plants were planted in the temple gardens of love goddesses, and Aphrodite was often illustrated wearing a crown of myrtle.
To the Romans, these plants were regarded to be just as important as the olive tree, though they had more of a connection to love and affection. When Venus emerged from the sea, she was holding a sprig of myrtle.
The plant itself represented immortality, so people would give them as gifts to represent their eternal love, as well as wishing someone a long and happy life.
The plant was also used in funeral rites and ceremonies.
They were also a cornerstone of Roman gardens, as the plants didn’t mind being pruned harshly, and because their fragrance was widely admired, as well as their use as garlands.
It’s believed that the Romans also planted the myrtle in places it wasn’t native to remind the Roman people who settled elsewhere of home.
As a token of honor, garlands including myrtle were worn to banquets, festivals, and sacrifices, which signified a victory where no blood was spilled, unlike wreaths which were made of laurel.
Gold myrtle wreaths have been discovered in many parts of the world, especially Macedonia, so we know that people have regarded this plant as very important for centuries.
Myrtle Flowers in Judaism
In Judaism, myrtle is one of the four sacred plants in the Feast of the Tabernacles. The plant represents peace, Eden, the bond of marriage.
The myrtle represents people who do good deeds despite not having studied from the Torah.
Myrtle in England
While these plants had been introduced into England during Roman times, as they didn’t survive the harsh winters, the first record of them being reintroduced came in the 16th century.
Along with the first orange trees, Sir Walter Raleigh returned from Spain in 1585 with the myrtle tree.
Although, there has been some disagreement as to exactly when the myrtle was introduced.
In 1562, Lord Burghley, who was Queen Elizabeth’s I great minister, sent a letter to a Mr Windebank in Paris. The letter asked for a pomegranate, a lemon, and a myrtle, as well as instructions on how to grow them.
By the late 17th century, myrtles were grown in cases, pots, and tubs, and were brought outside during the summer months.
A book called The City Gardener from 1722 also suggested that they should be rented annually to fill an empty fireplace during the months it wasn’t needed.
Popular Types of Myrtle
There are many varieties of myrtle to choose from, and nearly all of them have medicinal and culinary uses, as well as being grown for their purely ornamental value.
This has only helped add to their popularity and ensured the survival of many cultivars, and to prevent the species from being wiped out by disease.
Read on to discover what types of myrtle you can grow in your own space. Some you’ll need to grow exclusively indoors, depending on where in the world you live, as they can only survive in warm climates.
Ugni molinae ‘Strawberry Myrtle’
Found mostly in parts of Argentina and Chile, the strawberry myrtle is named after the bright fruits this myrtle grows, which resemble strawberries.
It also produces tight clusters of tiny but vivid pink flowers, which put on a showy display all on their own.
It’s related to the guava tree, and it’s sometimes referred to as the Chilean Guava for this reason.
It’s also grown in Australia and New Zealand, where it’s known as the Tazziberry and the Ugniberry respectively.
The strawberry myrtle can reach a maximum height of 5 feet, and needs direct sunlight in order to thrive and to produce the most flowers and fruit possible.
The fruits taste like alpine strawberries that you’ll find growing in the wild. You can also use the leaves to make tea, making this plant a truly versatile option.
Rhodomyrtus tomentosa ‘Downy Rose Myrtle’
Found in many parts of Asia, the downy rose myrtle attracts a lot of pollinators with its gorgeous light pink flowers. Like the strawberry myrtle, it needs full sun in order to thrive.
It’s also known as the rose myrtle, or rhodomyrtus tomentosa.
The downy rose myrtle requires very hot conditions in order to thrive.
Many people use the fruit it produces to make jam, as a base for pies, and as part of salads.
It can grow up to 12 feet tall, and the foliage is a nice contrast to the flowers, as it’s a very dark green.
It’s worth checking to see if your area considers the rose myrtle invasive, as they can easily take over any place they’ve been planted in.
Myrtus apiculata ‘Chilean Myrtle’
While it would be very easy to confuse the Chilean myrtle with the strawberry myrtle, they are entirely different plants. The Chilean myrtle, or Myrtus apiculata, is native to the Central Andes.
In its wild habitat, they grow in large forested areas, which usually have a good supply of water. The leaves also smell faintly of citrus. The bark itself can be used as soap, as it lathers similarly.
It also gets much, much bigger than the strawberry myrtle, as in its native conditions, the plant can reach 50 feet high. It also produces stunning white flowers which have a powerful fragrance.
The flowers have five petals, and have very large anthers, which make them look tassled.
If these traits weren’t attractive enough, the plant also features an orange trunk which sometimes turns gray.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the Chilean Myrtle will bloom from midsummer into the late days of fall, which is around November time until June in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Chilean myrtle berries taste a little like blueberries or even blackberries, and the plant itself has a number of medicinal uses.
To grow a Chilean myrtle, you’ll need a dedicated spot where it can get the most sunlight possible, as it won’t tolerate shade. It also needs acidic soil in order to thrive.
Myrtus nivellei ‘Saharan Myrtle’
The Saharan myrtle grows exclusively in the mountains of the Central Sahara Desert.
It’s also a cornerstone of the traditional medicine of the native Tuareg people.
Myrtus communis ‘True Myrtle’
The True myrtle, or the common myrtle, originated in the Mediterranean, but it’s now found throughout the world. It’s a highly adaptable plant that needs extremely well-draining soil, and has the added benefit of resisting a lot of drought.
This myrtle is more manageable in that it grows to a maximum of 6 feet tall.
You can recognize the common myrtle by its pointed leaves, and petite, star-shaped flowers which come in pink or white.
The fruit the common myrtle produces looks and tastes similar to blueberries, but a little less sweet.
You can also get a dwarf variety of the common myrtle, which thrives very well indoors.
Backhousia citriodora ‘Lemon Myrtle’
Lemon myrtle, or sweet verbena, is a very attractive plant which grows up to 26 feet tall.
You can recognize it by its dark foliage, and the yellow and white flowers. The leaves are also very fragrant, and the scent resembles lemongrass, making it a perfect ingredient in cosmetics and perfume.
It thrives in subtropical rainforests, and you can find it naturally growing in Australia, and parts of South America. It has even spread to Europe and the US.
Agonis flexuosa ‘Willow Myrtle’
Native to the southwest of Western Australia, the willow myrtle is also known as the Swan River peppermint.
It has a weeping habit similar to the willow, and gorgeous showers of white flowers appear between the long leaves.
It blooms throughout the spring and summer months, and can reach 50 feet high in its natural habitat. It’s also used by the Noongar people as an antiseptic.
Growing Myrtle and Plant Care
Myrtle is not the easiest plant to look after, but the benefits of having this plant far outweighs the difficulties of growing it.
If you live somewhere cold, you should only grow myrtle in containers. This will mean that you won’t have to dig them up every winter – you can simply bring the pot indoors so that it will survive the harsher temperatures.
Otherwise, this can be a laborious process, especially if the tree gets larger. It’s much easier to grow myrtle in a pot, and while this may stunt their growth a little, it will also make the plant a lot easier to manage.
If you are lucky enough to live in a warmer climate, you should be able to grow myrtle outdoors, all year round. If you do get a lot of rain, however, you’ll need to place your myrtle somewhere sheltered, so they don’t take the brunt of every downpour.
Most myrtles can be planted in the late spring or early summer, when the weather is neither too hot nor too cold.
Most types of myrtle need soil that drains freely, and keeping them somewhere sheltered from the harsh sun while their roots establish will result in a healthier plant.
Depending on the type of myrtle, it will also need acidic soil in order to grow properly.
Watering habits can be tricky to get right, as they need a lot more water when the plants are immature, that is to say, under two years old. During the first year, they’ll need very regular watering in summer.
Water myrtle in the early evening hours to prevent the water from simply evaporating, as well as eliminating the risk of scorching the plant in the hottest part of the day.
You can also trim some lower leaves to direct the plant’s energy into producing fresh growth and even flowers.
How to Keep Myrtle Flowering
Keeping myrtle in very hot summers can mean that these plants need more attention. They’ll need more water, and they will benefit from fertilizer, which will help sustain the flowers during the growing season.
These plants will also benefit from a sheltered position, as strong winds can knock the flowers off the plant before they are ready to fall.
Keeping the conditions relatively consistent will help the flower growth remain steady. If you overwater the plant, this can halt flower production and the overall growth of the plant itself.
While you can deadhead myrtle, be careful not to be too zealous with the shears, as trimming off too much growth will also impact how many flowers the plant produces.
When the weather starts to cool, you’ll need to provide some protection to your myrtle, as it cannot stand cold temperatures, and will quickly die if exposed to frost or freezing conditions.
What You Can Use Myrtle For
As well as being beautiful in their own right, myrtle plants have a myriad of uses, the flowers especially. Myrtle has been part of traditional medicine in many cultures, where it has been used for centuries.
It’s also been used to add spice and warmth to culinary dishes, and to help bring out complimentary flavors.
Using Myrtle in the Kitchen
Myrtle plants are fantastic because not only do they put on a great display with their flowers and fruits, providing a sea of color into your garden, but the fruits are also edible.
They have the benefit of resembling strawberries and blueberries, but they are much less sweet, which caters to a range of palettes that don’t always have a sweet tooth.
These berries are often included in homemade jams, smoothies, and desserts. Depending on the type of myrtle, they can also be eaten raw, though they may not be palatable!
In the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, people use the common myrtle to make Mirto, which is a heavily fragrant liqueur.
The berries can also act as a substitute for pepper.
The essential oil derived from myrtle has been used for hundreds of years, and in modern times, it’s often incorporated into cosmetics of all kinds.
It contains a lot of astringent properties, and can help clear up blemishes, acne, promote healing, and to reduce skin irritation. The oil has been used for this since the Middle Ages.
Written records of myrtle being used for medicinal purposes have been included in the work of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Pliny, and Galen, which should give you some idea of how long humans have been using myrtle to treat illness.
In Sumer, it was used to treat pain and fever, and this usage has continued throughout the centuries. It contains a lot of salicylic acid, which acts similar to aspirin.
The fragrance itself helps relieve the symptoms of sinusitis within traditional medicines.
Why Do People Grow Myrtle Flowers?
I think the question should be, why wouldn’t you grow myrtle flowers?
Aside from all the benefits listed above, it’s believed to be good luck to grow myrtle. They provide a wealth of color and fragrance into your green space.
They also provide a wealth of potential culinary and medicinal benefits (though you should always consult a doctor before trying to self-medicate with plants, as it can be very dangerous even if you think you know what you’re doing.)
The myrtle plant is respected in many different cultures, and the flowers themselves carry the symbolism of innocence, chastity, and healing.
Are Myrtle Flowers Important?
Myrtle flowers are a cornerstone of their native regions, not only beneficial to the wildlife but to the people who live there. The plants provide a wealth of food and shelter to beneficial insects and animals, as well as having helpful properties that humans have been using for countless years.
It’s important to note, though, that these plants are often considered invasive, so before growing them in your garden you will need to check with your local authority that you can do so.
If they escape from your garden into the environment beyond (and this can happen very easily), this can do a lot of damage to the native plants.
Myrtle plants are enigmatic, ornamental, and hugely beneficial to wildlife and humans alike.
While they can be tough to grow, especially in places they are not native to, these plants are worth a try for the beauty and color alone that they will add into your garden.
You can even grow them indoors, where you might have better luck in getting them to thrive, as you can more easily mimic the conditions they’ve adapted to over thousands of years.
Whatever reason you choose to grow these gorgeous plants, they will add a wealth of color and will attract more life into your garden, which is only beneficial to the other plants you grow.
Myrtle plants are also given as gifts, as the plant is thought to bring good luck, prosperity, positivity, and happiness to the recipient, especially at weddings.