MYRTLE (Myrtus communis – Myrtaceae)
This aromatic evergreen shrub originates from Africa, and grows all around the Mediterranean. It was introduced to Britain in 1597, but generally only flourishes in the south, or under glass (it can also be grown as a pot plant). It has small, shiny, dark green leaves which contain vesicles full of essential oil. The flowers are fragrant and white, five-petalled with a spectacular spray of thin stamens. These are followed by purple-black berries. In its natural habitat, myrtle can grow to virtual tree height, up to about 4 m (14 ft).
The Ancient Egyptians knew of the therapeutic properties of myrtle, macerating the leaves in wine to counter fever and infection. Theophrastus later confirmed its place in therapy, adding that the best and most odiferous tree came from Egypt. Dioscorides also prescribed a wine in which the leaves had been macerated: this fortified the stomach and was effective for pulmonary and bladder infections, and for those who were spitting blood.
In 1876, Dr Delioux de Savignac advocated the use of myrtle for bronchial infections, for problems of the genito-urinary system, and for haemorrhoids. Despite this enthusiasm, it was only last century that the therapeutic properties of myrtle were properly investigated; in his thesis about myrtle, one M. Linarix reconfirmed all the properties listed in the old texts, and judged myrtle the best tolerated of all the balsamic plants.
Venus was ashamed of her nudity on the island of Cythere, so hid behind a myrtle bush. In gratitude, she took the plant under her protection, and it became her favourite.
In Biblical times, Jewish women wore garlands of myrtle on their heads on their wedding day as a symbol of conjugal love, and to bring them luck. It is still often carried with orange blossom as a traditional bridal flower. Women in the south of France used to drink an infusion of the leaves every day to keep their youth and beauty.
To protect one’s house from the evil eye in the south of France, a myrtle tree was planted nearby. However, this was apparently only effective if the tree were planted by a woman.
MYRTLE ESSENTIAL OIL
Description: Only the fresh leaves are used for distillation. Myrtle oil obtained is liquid, and a clear yellow to greenish-yellow. It smells camphory and peppery green, rather like bay.
The principal constituents: Camphene, cineol, geraniol, linalool, a compound called myrtenol and pinene. The oil also contains a lot of tannin.
Because of its astringent action, due to the high tannin content, myrtle is very effective against haemorrhoids. Add 6 drops myrtle to 30 g (1 oz) cold cream, and mix well. Apply a few times per day, when the pain and swelling are at their worst.
(See also haemorrhoids, shingles and stings and bites.)
Because the leaves are astringent, they were used in the sixteenth century to clean the skin. A special perfumed water called ‘eau d’anges’ was prepared in France and used for its tonic and astringent action.
Myrtle is very effective in bad cases of acne, especially when there are painful boils with white heads. Mix 10 ml (2 tsp) grape seed oil, 1 drop wheatgerm and 7 drops myrtle, and apply a few times per day until better. Cleanse the skin before and after applying the myrtle oil with a lotion made from 50 ml (2 fl oz) rosewater and 5 drops myrtle. This has a particularly astringent action on the greasy skin which is so often associated with bad acne.
Meat and the small birds which are a delicacy in Mediterranean countries can be wrapped in or stuffed with myrtle leaves: these impart their flavour after the meat or bird is cooked. Myrtle branches and twigs can be burned on a fire or barbecue beneath meat. The berries are edible, and were once dried like pepper: they can be used much like juniper, although they are milder.
Myrtle has an anti-insect effect much the same as eucalyptus, and it would be worth planting a few shrubs for this purpose if you suffer from mosquitos, for example. Not only will you be bite-free, but you will also purify the room with the fresh, clean, camphory fragrance, which will be beneficial to the respiratory system.
Myrtle flowers can be dried for use in pot-pourris; the oil-rich leaves were once used as an aromatic polish for wooden furniture; and the bark and roots (presumably because of the tannin content) were used in tanning.