Get to know sweet myrtle, a hardy, evergreen herb that has few problems and many culinary uses. It blends well into the indigenous garden with the fine foliage resembling fynbos.
Myrtus communis (MUR-tus kom-EW-nis), sweet myrtle, myrtle, true myrtle
Hardy evergreen, shrubby herb. Compact, attractive, with small 1-inch white flowers in early summer, sometimes followed by blue-black berries. Small, aromatic, dark green, glossy foliage. Bushy and slow growing. Beautiful when in bloom. Sweet-scented leaves and flowers. Usually grows to a height of 1.5 – 2m but can grow up to 5m. The spread is 1.5 x 2m feet, but it rarely gets that big. The dwarf form, ‘Compacta,’ only grows 80cm – 1m in height.
Sweet myrtle needs full sun to part shade. It is very easy to propagate, and you can start from cuttings from spring to fall. Set out container-grown transplants year-round. Final spacing: 30cms.
Pick flowers while in full bloom and store in glass with tight-fitting lid in a dark place. It will last in those conditions for three years. In northern climates, bring plants indoors to overwinter. Myrtle made its way from the Mediterranean in the 16th century when it was introduced to England. It has few, if any, problems.
Flower buds and berries can be used in sweet dishes, and the leaves can be used in meat dishes. Purple-black berries can be used whole or coarsely ground. Myrtle berries are sweet, with juniper and rosemary-like flavors. The leaves can be used whole or chopped and have a spicy, astringent and bitter taste with a refreshing, fragrant and orange-like aroma.
Myrtle leaves can be dried and used like bay leaves. They have a flavor similar to allspice with a touch of menthol. The flowers are used as a garnish, and berries are dried, ground and used like a spice as with juniper berries. Myrtle leaves and berries are used to season lamb and pork dishes in Middle Eastern cuisine but are far less popular in the west. In Italy and on the island of Sardinia, where myrtle grows wild, myrtle is a staple spice used in the kitchen and in wood smoking to add a distinctive flavor to barbecued food. Mirto is a liqueur produced from both myrtle berries, known as mirto rosso, and myrtle leaves, mirto bianco.
Leaves are antiseptic, astringent and used on bruises, acne and hemorrhoids. It is used as a poultice, tea or tincture.
Myrtle is attractive in containers, can be pruned into topiaries and works well for bonsai. It makes a good edging plant in the landscape and is excellent for cut flower arrangements because the foliage lasts a long time.
Myrtle flowers are used to make perfume. Dried leaves are used in herb pillows and potpourri, and cuttings are used in weddings as a symbol of chastity and beauty.