Plant 162

Myrtus communis L. (Myrtaceae)


Common myrtle

Myrtus communis is one of the most familiar and distinctive evergreen shrubs of wooded and scrub habitats in the Mediterranean region. The fragrant and aromatic, shiny green leaves, which are rich in volatile oils, contribute to the characteristic scents of these habitats. The plants produce abundant, solitary, white flowers during the long, hot Mediterranean summer. The fruits are blue-black, spherical, multi-seeded berries, which are bird dispersed; yellowish-white-fruited forms are also rarely found. Myrtus is the only European genus of the large tropical and subtropical family Myrtaceae, which includes other familiar plants such as a cloves, allspice and eucalyptus.

The range of Myrtus communis extends from Macaronesia through western Asia to Central Asia and northern India. In addition to Myrtus communis, the genus comprises at least one other species; Myrtus nivellei, is a species restricted to the mountains of the Sahara. Molecular data reveal distinct genetic differences between the eastern and western parts of the range of Myrtus communis which can be dated to events about 5-8 million years ago, followed by later colonisation of the Sahara.

There is great morphological variation in vegetative features such as leaf shape and size, which have attracted the attention of gardeners. During the seventeenth century, myrtle became a popular shrub in British gardens. Pots of the plant would be brought outside during the summer months, and then brought into the orangery for protection during the winter months. In 1648, six years after he took up the post as first keeper of the Oxford Physic Garden, Jacob Bobart the Elder was growing four types of myrtle, despite lacking ideal facilities to keep the plants over winter. In the eighteenth century, its status was such that potted myrtles were even rented as summer house plants from enterprising nurserymen by the English middle classes.

In the Greek and Roman worlds myrtle was sacred to Aphrodite and Venus, and was a popular component of garlands. In Sardinia and Corsica, myrtle fruits are steeped in alcohol to flavour liqueurs. In many parts of the Mediterranean the leaves are used as a flavouring agent and to make perfumes, whilst the fruits are used as a pepper substitute in some preserved meats. Tannin-rich myrtle bark is used in the preparation of high-quality leather. Myrtle had a prominent part of the medical writings of ancient authors such as the Graeco-Roman physician Dioscorides, and it was even an officinal plant in seventeenth-century England.

Further reading

Migliore J et al. 2012. From Mediterranean shores to central Saharan mountains: key phylogeographical insights from the genus Myrtus. Journal of Biogeography 39: 942-956.

Stephen Harris