Herbs: Myrtle; History, Varieties, Culinary Uses and Nutrition
Myrtle (myrtus communis), also known as true or Roman myrtle, is a hardy, evergreen, highly fragrant shrub with dark green oval shaped leaves and attractive white flowers followed by black berries, during blossoming season (June-July). The exact origin of myrtle is unknown, although generally speaking it is native to the Mediterranean region, North Africa and the Middle East. This attractive, aromatic plant has a prominent place in ancient European mythology and was valued in traditional herbal medicine.
Myrtle became closely associated with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty and fertility from about the eighth century B.C, when Aphrodite was revered in the gardens of Athens; myrtle at her feet. The famous Venus de Milo statue led to the inspiration of the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite, which was Venus. Venus was described in literature holding a sprig of myrtle as she emerges from the sea, and as with Aphrodite, myrtle was grown around her temples and gardens. Roman ladies wore myrtle wreaths and customarily bathed in myrtle scented water.
This led to the tradition of holding a wreath of myrtle over a brides head, during wedding ceremonies in many European countries. In the Victorian era Queen Victoria began a royal tradition after she was gifted a bouquet of flowers, including myrtle, by Prince Albert’s grandmother. The myrtle sprigs were planted at Osborne House on the Isle of White in 1845, and myrtle was included in the bouquet of the 17 year old Princess Victoria, eldest child of Queen Victoria, when she married in 1858. The historic custom would continue to be part of every royal wedding to date, including the 1947 wedding of Queen Elizabeth II; the 1981 wedding of Diana Spencer (Diana, Princess of Wales) to Prince Charles and myrtle was also included in the bridal bouquet of Kate Middleton for her wedding to Prince William on April 29, 2011.
In Judaism (Hebrew) myrtle is known as Hadassah, which is a highly significant name because it was the birth name of Esther, the Jewish queen to a Persian king who saved the Jews from certain annihilation in Persia.
Varieties of Myrtle: Myrtus communis variegata, better known as variegated common myrtle is an evergreen, perennial shrub that can grow to a height of 3 ft. This plant bears white flowers followed by blue/purple-black berries. The leaves of this plant are the smallest of any Myrtus species and have variegated (white) edges. They can be used in recipes like bay leaf, although the flavor is less concentrated than other species. Myrtle merion, botanical name Myrtus communis merion, is a hardy evergreen, although less hardy that any other myrtus species. This species is lager and more bushy than the aforementioned. Myrtus communis or true myrtle grows wild and is cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region. This species can grow as tall as 16 ft and has the largest leaves and flowers of any species.
Myrtle and its Culinary Uses: Myrtle leaves are usually dried and used like bay leaf. They have a flavor similar to allspice, with a touch of menthol. The flowers are used as a garnish and myrtle berries are dried, ground and used like a spice, in a similar way to 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, although they can be found in some western supermarkets. In Italy and on the island of Sardinia, where myrtle grows wild, the herb is a staple spice used in the kitchen and also for wood smoking to impart a distinctive flavor to barbecued food. At the end of a meal Sardinians and also people on the island of Corsica often enjoy a glass of Mirto. Mirto is a liqueur produced from both myrtle berries, known as sweet, (rosso) and myrtle leaves, Mirto bianco.
The Nutritional and Medicinal Value of Myrtle: As an herbal folk medicine, myrtle has had numerous applications in many cultures from Africa to northern Europe. The essential oil was traditionally used externally to alleviate acne and skin diseases. In Turkey, an herbal tea is made from dried myrtle leaves and berries and is used to help diabetics by lowering blood glucose levels. A similar decoction is used to treat unrinary and bladder infections in the Mediterranean region. This plant also has curative and restorative properties.
Myrtle and in particular myrtle berries contain many compounds that are thought could be beneficial to human health. One group of flavonols known as myricetin, found in glycosides, is thought to have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Myricetin may alleviate the suffering of Alzheimer patients as it is known to inhibit beta-amyloid fibril formation. The flavonoids in myrtle, including myricetin, are heart healthy as they can help reduce the oxidization of LDL cholesterol, which leads to heart disease. Studies using myricetin on diabetic rats have demonstrated that the flavonol reduces glucose plasma levels and might be beneficial to diabetics.