The myrtle (Myrtus communis L., 1753) is an aromatic plant typical of the Mediterranean scrub of which they are used: leaves, flowers and berries.
Origins and History –
Myrtle was one of the most important symbolic plants of ancient Rome, and according to Tito Livio, Rome was born at the point where the shrub had sprouted.
There are two varieties of the myrtle, which are the red one, the most common one is famous for its berries and the white one, appreciated instead for the sprouts.
Myrtle is a typical element of the Mediterranean scrub, it was considered a representation of love par excellence, both sacred and profane. With a crown of myrtle, symbol of the conjugal union, called “conjugal”, the bride adorned herself on her wedding day.
The women who attended the parties in honor of Venus Mirtea girdled their arms, head and ankles, considering it a powerful aphrodisiac capable of stimulating desire and encouraging encounters. Among the lovers there was the use of plucking myrtle branches at the summer solstice to make a pact of mutual loyalty.
In Roman times, myrtle was considered the symbol of glory, prosperity and eternal love. Its flowers were often present during wedding banquets as a sign of good luck and propitiatory.
If the doctor Discoride (1st century) believed it to be effective against many diseases, the majority highlighted its aromatic virtues, considering it as valuable as the most precious essences.
Since the Latin poets who had sung love had been crowned with myrtle, in the Italian poetic language the term “myrtle” became a metaphor for loving feeling, as Foscolo testifies by writing “dry is the myrtle” referring to a dormant love.
In ancient times this was also a shrub that identified supremacy, because in colonizing the land it drove out any other plant. With reference to the aforementioned peculiarity, Pliny recalls that on exceptional occasions the myrtle replaced the laurel in the wreaths offered to the victorious commanders.
The phytocosmetic use of the plant dates back to the Middle Ages, when “Acqua degli angeli” indicated the distilled liquid of myrtle flowers with which ablutions were made to preserve beauty and love.
The scent of the shrub awakened not only eros but also the throat, and just in the food field, before the arrival of pepper, its berries were very popular as an ingredient in sauces or to enhance the flavors of the meat, as recalled by Apicius himself.
With the Romans myrtle flavored also a sausage which was called “myrtatum”.
The massive use of myrtle went up to the Middle Ages, then its qualities were gradually forgotten, to return to being considered today.
Today this shrub is considered an excellent antiseptic, balsamic, disinfectant (essential oils), while its aromatic virtues are exalted on grilled meats and in the preparation of the liqueur.
In Brunella, in the province of Nuoro, the myrtle festival takes place every year in early August.
The well-developed leaves of the myrtle are caught in summer, and in autumn-winter the berries, when they are perfectly dark.
The myrtle is a plant with a shrub or bush habit, between 0.5-3 m tall, very branched but remains dense; in old specimens it reaches 4-5 m; it is an evergreen broadleaf, has a very slow growth and is long-lived and can become centuries-old.
It has a bark, reddish in the young branches, which over time assumes a grayish color. The leaves are opposite, oval-acute, leathery, hairless and shiny, of a dark green color on the upper part, with a full margin, with many translucent points in correspondence with the aromatic glands.
The flowers are solitary and axillary, fragrant, long pedunculated, white or pink in color. They have radius symmetry, with persistent gamosepal calyx and dialyset corolla. The androceum is composed of numerous stamens that are evident for the long filaments. The ovary is inferior, divided into 2-3 loggias, ending with a simple stylus, and a small stigma. The abundant flowering occurs in late spring, from May to June; a rather frequent event is the second flowering which can occur in late summer, from August to September and, with hot autumns also in October. The phenomenon is mainly due to genetic factors.
The fruits are globose-ovoid berries, black-bluish, dark red or more rarely whitish, with numerous reniform seeds. They mature from November to January persisting for a long period on the plant.
Active principles –
Myrtle (both branches, leaves, flowers and berries) contains an essential oil called blueberry which contains antioxidants and active ingredients such as blueberry, geraniol, camphene, quercetin, pinene, cineol, catechin, linalool, tannins, sugars and resins.
It also contains citric acid, malic acid and vitamin C.
100 grams of berries have a calorie intake of 20 kcal.
Properties and Uses –
Myrtle is a plant that uses everything: leaves, flowers and berries. From flowers an essence is obtained which is used in the cosmetic field.
Due to its content in essential oil (blueberry, containing blueberry and geraniol and other minor active ingredients), tannins and resins, it is an interesting plant with aromatic and medicinal properties. Balsamic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, slightly antiseptic properties are attributed to myrtle, therefore it is used in the herbal and pharmaceutical field for the treatment of diseases affecting the digestive system and the respiratory system. From the distillation of leaves and flowers, a tonic lotion for eudermic use is obtained. The essential oil yield of the distillation of myrtle is somewhat low.
Once dried, the leaves are used to flavor meat and fish dishes but also for the preparation of infusions.
As mentioned above, myrtle has particular properties that are used in the therapeutic field; its main uses in this sense are:
– For the respiratory tract – taken in the form of a decoction prepared with its leaves and sweetened with honey, it is a valid remedy for inflammation of the respiratory tract. Essential oil is widely used in aromatherapy to relieve the symptoms of problems such as asthma and bronchitis.
– Astringent – the infusion, always using its leaves, has excellent astringent properties for the intestine and anti-bleeding.
– Immune System – leaves and essential oil have therapeutic properties. The substances contained in the leaves are good for the immune system. Taken during the winter season it helps us to defend ourselves against seasonal ailments.
– Anticancer – this plant is highly appreciated for its high levels of antioxidants, among which quercetin, tannins, myricetin and catechin stand out. These antioxidants have been extensively studied and their anti carcinogenic and anti mutagenic properties have been proven. In particular, myrtle seems to bring benefits in case of prostate and breast cancer. Research on its anticancer properties is still ongoing to discover other potential applications of this plant.
– Digestive – the liqueur, typical product of Sardinia, prepared with the maceration of the berries in alcohol, is considered a good liqueur with digestive properties.
– Benefits to the skin – thanks to its tonic and antiseptic properties, myrtle is used in cosmetics for the preparation of creams and detergents for intimate parts as well as for the treatment of sensitive skin. Essential oil, in very limited concentrations and together with another carrier oil, is very effective against acne and other skin imperfections.
– Thyroid Regulation – Research has been conducted on the effects that essential oil has on the endocrine system. Its essential oil has been shown to positively affect the release of hormones, including those related to the female reproductive system.
– Kidney Benefits – this plant stimulates urination, eliminating toxins, salts, liquids and excess fats. It thus helps regulate the function of the kidneys.
– For the Mind – the leaves and berries of this plant, thanks to flavonols, help to keep the mind clear. They also prevent the degradation of neural processes that can lead to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
– Cholesterol – myricetin contained in berries keeps blood cholesterol levels in balance. This avoids the clogging of blood vessels and arteries. It therefore prevents atherosclerosis and protecting the cardiovascular system from coronary heart disease and stroke.
– Diabetes Control – we state that studies in this area are still ongoing. However, the first reports indicate that the flavonols contained in this plant could help regulate blood sugar levels.
Among other properties, it should be remembered that, in popular tradition, its properties are believed to have their benefits in cases of cystitis, digestive problems, gingivitis and hemorrhoids. Traditionally, myrtle is used to counteract diarrhea, peptic ulcers and lung inflammation problems.
Myrtle is also a honey plant and good monfloral honey can be obtained, but it is produced only in Sardinia and Corsica where this plant is widespread.
When a fire destroys the myrtle plants, they immediately produce shoots from the roots which will form new stems.
Myrtle wood is also used to make small objects.
As for possible contraindications, there are no particular contraindications for taking myrtle. The only side effect could be represented by skin allergies.
It is not recommended for pregnant women and children up to 2 years of age.
As with most essential oils, the one derived from this plant must be used in very small doses. Before using it, it is always better to consult a doctor or an expert in the sector, also to avoid serious side effects due to overuse.
The myrtle, in addition to being consumed as soon as it is picked, is used for the preparation of the liqueur.
The berries are harvested from November to January, while the flowers bloom in the height of summer, generally in the period between July and August.
In myrtle the most important product, from the quantitative point of view, is represented by the berries, used for the preparation, in fact, of the myrtle liqueur proper, obtained by alcoholic infusion of the berries through maceration or steam stream. A less common liqueur is the White Myrtle, obtained by hydroalcoholic infusion of the young shoots, mistakenly confused with a variant of the myrtle liqueur properly called obtained by infusion of the non-pigmented fruit varieties.
In the Sardinian gastronomic tradition, myrtle is an important seasoning for flavoring some meats: the sprigs are traditionally used to flavor roast suckling pig, roasted or boiled poultry, beef and above all sa taccula or grivia, a simple but refined dish based on birds boiled (thrushes, blackbirds, starlings). The use of myrtle as an aroma for meat is not, however, an exclusive prerogative of Sardinians but is also present in other regional and Spanish cuisines. Much rarer but no less tasty is the use of myrtle as a condiment for a risotto.
As mentioned, the myrtle liqueur is a typical product of Sardinia, below an original local recipe:
Ingredients for the preparation of about 3 liters of myrtle liqueur:
– 1 1-liter bottle full of ripe myrtle berries;
– 1 bottle of alcohol at 90 °;
– 800 gr. of sugar;
– 2 liters of water.
Preparation: pour the alcohol into the bottle full of myrtle berries until it is filled. Close the bottle and leave to infuse for at least 20 days in a dark place. During these 20 days, as the berries absorb the alcohol, it is necessary to add more alcohol to fill the bottle. Shake occasionally.
After 20 days, drain the berries and keep the remaining infusion alcohol. Boil the water with the sugar for a few minutes. At the end add the berries which will boil for a minute together with the sweetened water. At this stage it is advisable to crush the berries a little to release the residual liquid.
Allow the mixture to cool, then drain and add half a liter of pure alcohol plus that obtained from the initial infusion of the myrtle. Finally filter everything with a cloth or with special paper filters and bottle.
The liqueur is generally served at very cold temperatures.
In addition, from the flowers of this plant, through distillation, an essence used in cosmetics and perfumery called Acqua degli Angeli is obtained. This has toning and astringent properties for the skin. Essential oil, on the other hand, is used for the preparation of soaps and cosmetics.
Warning: The information shown is not medical advice and may not be accurate. The contents are for illustrative purposes only and do not replace medical advice.