Myrtus communis (Common Myrtle)

Myrtus communis, also known as Common Myrtle, is an erect, bushy, evergreen shrub or short tree. It has small, aromatic, shiny dark green leaves. Its abundant showy white flowers bloom in spring and summer, followed by bluish-black berries that appear in autumn.

Myrtus communis is a drought-tolerant plant native to the Mediterranean basin. It can live up to 300 years and reach a full height between 10 to 20 years. The growth is fast in the first years but slows down as it ages.

Myrtle has a very important cultural significance. It is associated with the goddess of love in Greek (Afrodite) and Roman (Venus) mythology. Due to its symbolic significance of love, fertility and innocence, the fragrant sprigs of myrtle have been used throughout history in wedding ceremonies. 


Quick Overview

TYPE

Type Shrub

HEIGHT & WIDTH

Myrtus communis (common Myrtle) height and width

BLOOM TIME

Myrtus communis (common Myrtle) bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun / semi shade

HARDINESS

hardiness (-10ºC / 14º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 4 months

ORIGIN

origin mediterranean basin

Common Myrtle scientific name

  • Botanical name:  Myrtus communis  (MER-tus kom-MU-nis)
  • Family: Myrtaceae (mer-TAY-see-ee)
  • Common name: Myrtle, Common Myrtle, True Myrtle
NameMeaning
MyrtusThe Latin name for Myrtle.
communisThe Latin name for common.

How to identify Myrtus communis

Myrtus communis shrub (Common Myrtle)

Shrub

Myrtle is a large evergreen shrub with an upright and rounded irregular form. It has many stems that make it very bushy.

It can take different forms depending on the pruning it receives. It can be pruned into a small multi-trunk tree or into a dense rounded shrub. Some varieties are grown as bonsai.

It can have one or several initially reddish-brown trunks, but the bark turns scaly and greyish-brown as it ages, revealing an orange-toned bark inside. It has a very attractive look.

Usually reaching 1.5 to 2 m in height (5 to 6.5 ft) and 1 to 1.5 in width (3 to 5 ft) after 10 to 20 years.  But sometimes can grow up to 5 m tall.

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Myrtus communis (Common Myrtle)

Stem

The stem has opposite, simple leaves at each node, with single flowers (later bluish-black berries) coming out of the leaves axils.

The new shoots are red-tinged. Older stems are tan and gradually develop a flaky bark as they age, revealing the orange trunk inside.

Myrtus communis leaf (Common Myrtle)

Leaf

The stiff leaves are shiny dark green on top and lighter green with transparent dots underneath. They are strongly aromatic when crushed. 

They have a lanceolate or ovate shape of 2.5 to 5 cm (1 to 2 in) long and about 1.5 cm (0.6 in) wide. With a tiny stalk (sub-sessile)

The leaves may become reddish during colder winters.

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Myrtus communis flower(Common Myrtle)

Flower

The flowers are strongly fragrant and very showy, with a long stalk (3cm, 1.2in) arising at the leaf’s axil.

They are white or pinkish with 5 big rounded petals, many stamens topped with yellow anthers, and one pistil in the centre. The calyx has 5 triangular sepals.

The size of the flower is around 3 cm ( 1.2 in).

The flowers usually bloom in spring and summer. Some varieties may only bloom in early autumn.

Fruit

The fruit is a blue-mauve berry that turns bluish-black when ripe. It has several seeds inside and is edible, but the taste is not very pleasant. 

The size of the fruit is around 12mm (0.5 in ) long and 7mm (0.3 in) wide 

The berries will appear in the autumn after the flowers no longer bloom.

Myrtus communis Usage

Myrtle is one of the most versatile plants that exist. Besides being an ornamental plant in the garden, it can also be used for other purposes due to its flavour, fragrance, chemical properties, bark and cultural significance.

Ornamental

Myrtus communis is a very attractive plant with dense foliage, showy flowers, pretty berries and beautiful bark.

Due to its size and evergreen foliage, it is a great option for a structural plant in your garden.

It can be shaped into different forms, such as a hedge, compact rounded shrub, small multiple-trunk tree and even a bonsai.

Culinary

All parts of the myrtle plant can be used in culinary.

The leaves are used to flavour cooked dishes and can be used as a substitute for rosemary and bay leaves.

Fresh flowers can be eaten raw in salads, while dried flowers are used as an aromatic flavouring for sauces.

The fruits can be eaten raw (although not very tasty), can be used to produce an aromatic liqueur, or can be dried and used as an aromatic food flavouring.

The wood can be used as high-quality charcoal to flavour grilled food.

Medicinal

Myrtus communis has been used throughout history in traditional medicine to treat diarrhoea, peptic ulcer, haemorrhoids, gum infections, respiratory infections, skin diseases etc.

However, clinical studies suggest that it can have a broader spectrum of therapeutic effects, such as antioxidative, anticancer, antidiabetic, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, hepatoprotective and neuroprotective activity.

Cosmetics

Essential oils can be extracted from myrtle’s leaves, flowers and twigs.

These oils are used in cosmetic products such as skin care creams, shampoos, perfumes and soaps.

The flowers are used to produce perfumed water known as “Eau d’ange”.

Cultural

Myrtus communis has always sparked interest throughout history.

It is referenced in many stories and legends of mythology and religion

It is associated with the goddess of love in greek mythology (Afrodite) and roman mythology (Venus).

The plant has symbolic meaning in religions such as Christianity and Judaism. 

The Myrtle flower symbolises love, good luck and prosperity and has been used for many centuries in wedding ceremonies as an ornament for brides.

Biodiversity

Myrtus communis can be very useful for promoting the biodiversity of your garden because it attracts insects, birds and other wildlife.

The flowers are pollinated by many insects, and the fruits are eaten by birds and small mammals, which then disperse their seeds.

Other Uses

The wood of the myrtle plant is of very high quality and is used to make walking sticks and furniture.

The bark and roots are used for tanning fine leather, which conveys a delicate scent.

How to plant Myrtus communis

Myrtus communis is a low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plant.

It likes poor, well-drained soils but with some moisture. The soil should preferably be acidic, although it can tolerate alkaline soils with PH up to 8.3.

It is a hardy plant that can tolerate temperatures down to -10ºc (14ºF) as long as it is sheltered from winds. It is frost-tender. The late frosts can damage the new growths.

Myrtle prefers full sun but can tolerate partial shade, so choose a spot in your garden with these conditions when planting.

The best time to plant this shrub is at the beginning of spring for colder regions or the beginning of autumn for warmer regions.

How to water Myrtus communis

Myrtus communis is a drought-tolerant plant and does not like humid soils. Once established, it no longer requires watering.

During the first two years after planting, you will need to water the young Myrtle every two to three weeks during the summer.  Allow the soil to dry out between watering.

When watering it, you need to do it abundantly, giving the soil a generous soak so the water can penetrate deeply into the soil to allow the roots to grow deeply. 

To preserve the soil´s moisture, you should add mulch around your Myrtle (but not too close to the base). Wood chips and gravel are good options for mulching. 

How to prune Myrtus communis

Prune off any dead or frost-damaged branches in early spring.

Deadhead the flowering shoots as they fade in late spring or early summer to encourage new blooms and keep a compact appearance.

How to propagate Myrtus communis

The myrtle plant self-seeds easily, with germination occurring soon after the dispersal of the seeds, allowing the seedlings to benefit from the autumn and winter rain in the first stages of growth.

You can also easily propagate the Myrtle by seeds or semi-hardwood cuttings.

Propagating from seeds

You can imitate nature by sowing fresh seeds under a cold frame in autumn. Plant in a mixture of half sand and half compost out of direct sunlight. Allow to root during the winter and plant out in spring.

If you choose to use dry seeds, you should first soak the seed for 24 hours in warm water and sow in later winter in a greenhouse.

Propagating from cuttings

Semi-hardwood cuttings are taken with a heel during the summer. Let rooting take place over the winter and plant out in late spring.

Hardwood cuttings of the current season’s growth were taken in November. Root during the winter in a frost-free cold frame and then plant out in late spring or early autumn.  

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Sources

Sources of information used for this article

Article from Portuguese site Futuro

Article from North Carolina Extension

Article from RHS

Article from Arizona State University

Article from a Singapore government agency website

Article from Smithsonian libraries and archives