Greek Myrtle

Greek Myrtle is a dwarf evergreen shrub with a classical look that can be used in the garden like boxwood. The small dark green shiny leaves are fragrant when crushed and have many uses. In early summer, creamy white flowers with gold-tipped stamens make the plants shine in the garden. The plants can be clipped or not, according to taste. They grow fairly quickly so clipping will be necessary to maintain a one- or two-foot hedge. Without clipping, Greek myrtle will grow into a bushy, neat-but-not-perfectly-rounded specimen of 3 to 5 feet in height in about 3 years. Used as an accent plant in the herb garden, they are wonderful trimmed into spheres, either in the ground or in pots.

Greek myrtle thrives in full sun, but will grow well in as much as half shade. Good drainage is necessary and sandy soil is ideal. As for the pH of the soil, Greek myrtle is not fussy. Planted in the ground, it will need irrigation for six months to a year. After a year, plants will need extra water only during extended dry periods. In containers, water when the top inch of soil is dry, and then water thoroughly. Continue watering even in winter, since the combination of cold and dry can lead to loss of leaves.

Clipping should be done no later than early September in order to give the new growth this will spur time to harden before frost. In severe winters, even hardened-off plants can get tip-burn. Shear off the burned tips in April and they will quickly be replaced with fresh bright green growth.

In the kitchen, as well as on the grill, Greek myrtle is a delicious culinary herb. The flavor has been described as a bay leaf/rosemary flavor. Use sprigs and/or wood on the coals of the grill or place chicken, fish or pork directly on top of the herb which has been placed on the rack. Stuff sprigs inside a chicken or turkey before roasting. Try using the leaves in a marinade for any meat. Use sprigs in herbal vinegar. Use fresh tender new growth finely chopped with squash or zucchini. The small purplish-black berries that the follow the flowers can be used like juniper berries, such as in roast meat or any marinade.

Dwarf Greek myrtle is the most commonly used plant for making small-scale topiaries. Because it does not require full sun, it tolerates indoor conditions better than many herbs.

Though not well-known today, Greek myrtle is an ancient plant. It is woven into Greek and Roman mythology and was as loaded with meaning as rosemary. Myrtle was the sacred plant of the Greek goddess Aphrodite and the Roman goddess Venus. For the Greeks it was a symbol of love and passion, as well as death. The Myrtle-nymphs were prophetesses who taught the god Aristaeus, son of Apollo and Cyrene, how to make cheese, build beehives, and cultivate olives.

Athenians nibbled on myrtle berries as a confection, with the added benefit of having sweet-smelling breath. The berries were also made into a wine that would not intoxicate. Myrtle garlands were worn by thinkers, poets and maidens. Horace in particular preferred myrtle garlands to the more showy ones of Persian roses. A multitude of medicinal uses are recorded, from using the berries for ulcers, to using a decoction of the leaves in wine to clear up hangnails and freckles. Alas, we live in the present and Greeks and Romans were all very well, but it is now our turn to…

Enjoy growing Greek myrtle!