Did you know that Shirley Henderson, the actor who played the ghost Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films, was 37 when she first appeared in that role? It makes her the oldest actor to play a teenage Harry Potter character 🙂 The character is named after a plant that was used by the Ancient Romans and Greeks, and is still popular today.
Myrtle (Myrtus communis) is a plant that has been on my ‘to grow’ list for years now, although it has yet to make an appearance in the garden. In the UK it is often grown as an ornamental plant, an evergreen shrub up to 3m in height and width. Given a spot in full sun and well-drained soil, it produces pink buds that open into white flowers with multiple gold-tipped stamens, followed by blue-black berries. It is hardy down to -10°C, and in mild areas can be grown as a hedge as it tolerates regular clipping. The species has the most frost tolerance; some of the named varieties are less hardy, but there are also smaller varieties that will tolerate being in a container long term, and so can be moved into more sheltered accommodations for the winter.
If you have a plant you want to use for culinary purposes then (after checking it’s the right species, please!) you can use the leaves in the same way as bay leaves, and the berries (which are known by the lovely name ‘mursins’) like juniper berries.
The reason it’s important to check you’ve got the right plant is because myrtle is a name used for lots of other species. Myrtus communis is a member of the Myrtle family, the Myrtaceae, and in fact I already have some of its relatives in the garden – including the Chilean guavas (Ugni molinae) I am going to use as a low hedge in the front garden, and my poor Acca sellowiana, which has been living in a pot for far too long and needs some love and attention.
According to The Botanist in the Kitchen:
“Several of the Australian Myrtaceae species (order Myrtales) are lemony and used as a spice, including lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora), lemon gum (Corymbia citriodora), and lemon tea tree (Leptospermum polygalifolium).”
In fact, the Myrtaceae is a large family, containing over 5000 species and plenty of familiar plants, including cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) and allspice Pimenta dioica and the eucalyptus species.
When I visited Martin Crawford’s forest garden in 2012, I encountered the Wax Myrtle (Myrica pensylvanica), which is in the Myricaceae family and not closely related to Myrtus communis, despite the similar names.
The Plants for a Future database lists 14 ‘myrtles’ that have medicinal or culinary uses, but the only ones with a high edibility rating are either in the Myricaceae or the Myrtaceae.
Crape myrtles, (also written as Crepe myrtles), are new to me, as they’re entirely ornamental. These are Lagerstroemia species, mainly shrubs and small trees grown for their colourful and long-lasting summer flowers. They’re native to the Indian subcontinent, southeast Asia, northern Australia, and parts of Oceania and grown in warmer climates. They’re not well-known in UK gardens, but some varieties are available. In the US you have plenty of choice of varieties, for example the range of crape myrtle trees from thetreecenter.com.
Whichever species we’re referring to, it seems that myrtles are here to stay. Myrtle as a given name was popular in the late 19th/ early 20th century (perhaps it is time for a revival?), and it seems it is popular as a place name in North America as well (I am relying on Wikipedia here)…. There have even been four ships in the US Navy called the USS Myrtle, although none is still in service 🙂
This post is a collaboration, but the words are 100% the results of a morning spent delving into weird and wonderful plants!