Traditionally a time to reflect, moving home has meant that I have had little time to take stock this autumn and barely planned ahead for winter. So as I unpacked my essential oils into the kitchen aromatherapy cupboard this morning, I was delighted to discover a dusty bottle of myrtle oil with a few drops left. Soon my new home was experiencing its first fragrance – the clear, fresh tone and sweet herbaceous notes of myrtle, an oil that is perfect for reflection.
As I continued to unpack I found my aromatherapy portfolio, and decided it was a good time to have a cup of tea and re-visit my plant study of myrtle.
As part of Neals Yard Remedies aromatherapy and essential oil science diploma, I was required to make a study of a single plant. I chose myrtle (Myrtus communis) because it was not included in our curricula of around 70 essential oils and I was curious about this little-known herb. The guidelines for starting the plant study stated:
‘Plant the seed or take a cutting of your plant and study its growth. This will give you time to build a relationship with your plant and add your personal observations and experiences to the study. Make a plan. Write down where you expect or would like your investigation to take you, in order to review your progress and direction. Look into the history of the plant, the medicinal and other uses, and outline any research. Look at the botanical profile of the plant and its natural habitat. How does it grow and in what conditions? Find out everything you can about your plant, record what you find and prepare part of your study for a short presentation at the end of your course.’
I had grown my myrtle plant, which now lives happily in my mum’s garden, from a tiny cutting and as it grew I studied its origins: botanical, mythological and traditional. I learned about its uses and discovered new threads of research. I also bought a bottle of the essential oil and became familiar with its fragrance and the qualities that it added to a blend.
Myrtle is a subtle and charming essential oil, and a beautiful plant to grow in your garden. According to English folklore, myrtle will only grow if a woman plants it, perhaps because it was the herb best loved by Venus, goddess of love and beauty. I don’t think I could have chosen a nicer plant to study, and so here I reflect on and share my time spent with myrtle.
An introduction to myrtle
The myrtle of myth
A knight’s tale
The traditions of myrtle
The medicinal uses of myrtle
The aromatherapy uses of myrtle
The profile of myrtle essential oil
The cultivation of myrtle
The conclusion of a plant study of myrtle
The myrtle (Myrtus) is native to southern Europe and North Africa, and is a genus of one of only two flowering plants in the family Myrtaceae. This delicate and aromatic evergreen shrub or small tree can grow up to 5m tall, and has elegant, narrow oval and dark green leaves which yield the volatile oil. The flowers, which bloom from early summer to autumn, are snowy white with five petals and sepals and a proliferation of long stamens. The flowers gradually turn into blue-black berries and provide a tasty treat for birds. The most commonly cultivated species, widespread in the Mediterranean, is the common myrtle (Myrtus communis), which is grown for the essential oil used in perfumes and condiments. The plant is a popular ornamental topiary shrub that is able to withstand the scorching summer heat.
The Greeks and Romans believed that myrtle was favoured by the goddesses of love, Aphrodite and Venus, and the plant features widely in mythology and poetry. Myrtle loves to grow in salt air and, in myth, both Aphrodite and Venus were born from the sea. It was the myrtle with which Paris crowned Venus when he chose her the most beautiful of all goddesses.
To the Persians, Jews and Arabs, myrtle was a symbol of paradise. In biblical stories, Adam chose to take the myrtle plant when he was expelled from the Garden of Eden.
There is some speculation that the myrtle of the ancients was in fact bay, which is a variety of myrtle and related to the giant eucalyptus, guava, pimento, clove and pomegranate. However, there is little evidence to support this theory, and myrtle itself has grown in and around southern Europe for thousands of years.
The Greek’s associated the plant’s evergreen nature with immortality; they crowned successful playwrights and philosophers with myrtle wreaths to symbolise the everlasting legacy of their work. Myrtle was so often used for feasts and ceremonies that market stall holders always reserved a space for its sale; in one of the processions of Europa at Corinth, the wreath of myrtle was said to be 10ft in diameter.
Myrtle is a protective herb in magical traditions which may stem from the myth of the nymph Daphne, who transformed herself into a myrtle tree to escape the amorous advances of Apollo. The nymphs associated with myrtle were considered beneficial to mankind and credited with bestowing gifts of growing olive trees, making cheese and keeping bees!
There is an enchanting tale of myrtle in Arabic folklore concerning a knight named Rogero who rode his hippogriff, a mythical flying beast, to an unknown shore. Here, Rogero tied the hippogriff to a myrtle bush while he took a drink from a fountain. As he drank, a voice of pity and sorrow called out from the myrtle. Untying his hippogriff from the bush, the knight discovered that the myrtle and other trees on the land were brave explorers from France who had been transformed by the beautiful sorceress, Aleina. Rogera finally defeated Aleina’s evil magic with good magic and restored the heroes to their human forms.
The leaves and fruit of myrtle have many uses in the Mediterranean and Middle East. In Ancient Greece, myrtle berries were nibbled as a breath freshener. In rural areas of Sardinia and Italy, myrtle wood is used in cooking fires to flavour the food; the leaves may be added to the glowing coals of a barbecue to flavour pork, lamb and poultry, and the leaves and berries can be added to stews and the flowers used for garnish. In Sardinia, a digestive liquor called ‘mirto’ is made from myrtle berries macerated in alcohol, while in Italy, the leaves flavour vinegar or marinade. In the Middle East, the dried berries, or ‘mursins’, are used in cooking as a peppery spice.
The roots and bark can be used for tanning leather, and it is myrtle which gives Russian leather its distinctive aroma.
Throughout all texts on herb lore, however, myrtle was used as a love potion in part because its uplifting scent stimulated the senses. In medieval texts, myrtle leaves were rubbed over the body to raise libido, particularly in women. Aromatherapy texts commonly list its use in skin care. In Europe, myrtle was famous as a beauty oil; a key ingredient of ‘Angel’s Water’, used as a tonic to purify and brighten the skin. In the perfume industry, eau d’ange is distilled from myrtle flowers and leaves and used to scent soaps and toiletries.
Myrtle still survives as an important ingredient in many healing traditions. In herbal lore, the crushed leaves were applied as a poultice to external wounds and skin rashes, while the juice of the berries were said to remedy digestive ailments. In Turkey the plant is used as a remedy for chronic cough and bronchial conditions, while in Europe herbalists use myrtle for asthma, bronchitis, chronic coughs, congestion, and sinusitis because of the expectorant qualities of the plant’s volatile oils.
In North Africa, myrtle is used to treat diabetes – a practice which has some basis in science according to The Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Myrtus extract helped to prevent hyperglycaemia from developing in diabetic mice for 48hours and the effect was maintained by repeated administration. ‘These studies confirm the “folk-medicine” indication of Myrtus extract as potentially useful in the treatment of diabetes mellitus.’
Research has shown that myrtle essential oil is highly antiseptic and particularly anti-fungal. Researchers have found myrtle to be effective against even stubborn strains of fungi such as Candida albicans. Aromatherapist, Salvatore Battaglia writes that the oil of myrtle is also proven effective in treating headlice and their eggs.
Battaglia reports that the green variety of myrtle oil is ‘regenerating, astringent and anti-allergenic’. The pale-yellow variety is used in beauty care to treat acne, oily skin and open pores. The oil’s astringent action also makes it useful for treating haemorrhoids.
Myrtle’s expectorant actions make it useful for respiratory problems. The relatively mild nature of myrtle and its unobtrusive odour mean that it is suitable to use for children’s coughs and colds. As it is less stimulating than eucalyptus and it is slightly sedative, myrtle oil is ideal to vaporise overnight to aid sleep during a cold. Aromatherapist Patricia Davis recommends its use as a chest rub in 3% dilution of carrier oil and comments, ‘a good oil for elderly people both as a treatment and a preventative measure against chest infections’.
Myrtle’s antiseptic and bactericidal properties make it useful for colds and ‘flu, vaporised in autumn and winter months or used as a chest rub or inhalation to relieve symptoms.
The essential oil’s antiseptic and bactericidal properties are helpful for treating urinary tract infections when used in a sitz bath or douche.
Battaglia quotes S. Fischer-Rizzi’s description of myrtle’s emotional profile: ‘Myrtle is helpful for people whose body seems draped in a gray brown veil from smoking, drug abuse, or emotions like anger, greed, envy or fear. In such cases myrtle oil helps to cleanse the person’s delicate inner being to dissolve disharmony’. Battaglia himself describes myrtle as carrying a deep inner wisdom which can serve as a companion even to the dying.
Latin name: Myrtus communis
Place of origin: Mediterranean basin and also cultivated in North Africa and Europe
Plant type: evergreen shrub or small tree
Method of extraction: steam distillation from the leaves and twigs; occasionally the flowers are included in the distillation which gives variations in the scent of the oil extracted from different regions
Characteristics of the essential oil: a clear, fresh tone similar to eucalyptus (which is also from the genus Myrtaceae) and sweetly herbaceous notes with subtle camphoraceous undertones
Chemical constituents: primarily cineol, and also myrtenol, pinene, geraniol, linalol and camphene
Therapeutic actions: anti-catarrhal, antiseptic, astringent, bactericidal, expectorant, sedative, uplifting
Method of use: massage, compress, bath, sitz bath, douche, skin care, inhalation, diffuser, vaporiser, room fragrance
Blends with: bergamot, lavender, lavendin, rosemary, clary sage, hyssop, bay leaf, lime, laurel, ginger, clove and other oils
Contraindications: non-toxic, non-irritating and non-sensitising. Do not confuse with wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) or bog myrtle (Myrica gale) which are both toxic.
My myrtle plant was grown from a cutting thanks to a generous donation from our local garden centre and now grows as a well-established potted shrub on my mum’s patio. My notes used for cultivating myrtle are below:
Common myrtle (M. communis) is best grown indoors during winter months and placed outside for the summer. Use indoor potting soil and a pot with good drainage to avoid water-logging the roots. However, do not allow the plant to dry out and keep moist and regularly fed with liquid feed. Trim in autumn, winter and spring to keep the plant looking its best, but reduce trimming in summer to ensure a long flowering season. The plant should be re-potted in alternate years in spring.
If planting or transferring to outdoors, plant myrtle in late spring and protect with insulation during frosts. Myrtle should be planted in well-drained soil in a spot where it can bask in the sun. Shelter from rain and cold is preferable, perhaps place in a pot on a patio. To maintain outside, feed the plant once in spring with compost and feed pot-grown plants weekly during spring. Bring it inside during extremely cold winters.
To harvest, pick fresh leaves throughout the year, fresh flowers in summer and berries in late autumn.
Little-used or known within the wider world of aromatherapy, myrtle has more literature surrounding its mythical rather than therapeutic attributes, which is why it may be left forgotten in a dusty dark corner of the cupboard. But it is the plant’s humble nature that is its greatest virtue. Pull out of antiquity myrtle’s long-standing uses as a remedy in folklore, or take its value as a key ingredient in Angel’s Water to bring radiance to the skin, or look at modern research about its potential in medicine, then this essential oil could take its place among the ‘super’ oils lavender and tea tree.
Autumn is a time to honour our ancestors and as the leaves are still turning on the trees, this post is dedicated to my grandmother, Ethel, who passed away last winter.
A simple description of myrtle essential oil and recipes for its use are available in my earlier post: Myrtle, the quiet one.
4 http://www.oliveleaf.co.uk [Accessed 10 March 2005]
5 Elfellah MS, Akhter MH, Khan MT. Anti-hyperglycaemic effect of an extract of Myrtus communis in streptozotocin-induced diabetes in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 1984 Aug;11(3):275–81.
6 Mahboubi M, Ghazian Bidgoli F. In vitro synergistic efficacy of combination of amphotericin B with Myrtus communis essential oil against clinical isolates of Candida albicans. Phytomedicine. 2010 Aug;17(10):771–4.