The myrtle tree is an indigenous species common in many parts of southern Europe and North Africa.
Like most other native trees, it had nearly disappeared from the Maltese countryside but there is evidence that in a number of localities such as Wied Għajn Riħana it used to be common.
The myrtle does not grow high and at most reaches five metres but its special attributes are aromatic leaves and beautiful white flowers that are in bloom from late spring to late summer.
Later in the year the myrtle tree produces large numbers of blue-black berries. The berries contain several seeds and it is very easy to propagate the tree from them.
The berries attract many birds that feast on them and help the plant by carrying away the seeds in their gut. When they defecate, they deposit them away from the parent plant, helping to disperse the species far and wide.
The myrtle is also cultivated and can be found in gardens even outside its natural range. It is ideal for hedges and one can be found in the front garden of the Domus Romana museum in Rabat.
The leaves, chewed raw or used as a standard infusion, is used as a general tonic and restorative, of special value during bouts of sickness, depression, or strain. It quickly revives the spirit, quickens the mind and strengthens the nerves.
Cases of poor memory and mental confusion in old age are successfully treated with Bog myrtle. The branch tea once was used as a diuretic for gonorrhea
In Sardegna and Corsica a liqueur known as Mirto is made from the berries. Myrtle has been used medicinally for at least 3,000 years and scientific studies show that the ancient medical uses of myrtle were based on real properties.
Myrtle oil is used, among other things, to treat respiratory problems by clearing the airways.
Healers in Middle Eastern countries have traditionally used myrtle as a treatment for diabetes.
While the Israelites suffered in exile, God offered a vision of hope - all kinds of trees growing in the desert. “I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together...” -Isaiah 41:19
The ancient Greeks dedicated the myrtle to the gods Aphrodite and Demeter and in many parts of the Mediterranean the myrtle still symbolizes love and immortality.
Myrtle, Myrtus communis is associated with both Aphrodite and Venus — the Greek and Roman goddesses of beauty, love, laughter, protection and joy.
In fact, myrtle forms part of the wedding bouquet in some European countries and it is also used to make a crown for the bride
In Greek mythology, myrtle, with its small creamy-white fragrant blossoms, represented the goddess Aphrodite and adorned the Three Graces, her attendants who were symbolic of the “graces” of femininity. “Although many plants and flowers were dedicated to Venus in Roman antiquity, the myrtle was the most sacred.”
Prized by the Hebrews, myrtle was their symbol for marriage. The online resource, Alchemy Works, explains that the association with marriage in many ancient cultures is probably because myrtle “was originally connected with sex.” An ingredient in magic love potions, it was thought to be “helpful in creating and preserving love.”
Women of both ancient Roman and Greek cultures bathed in healing and soothing myrtle-scented water; these baths became sacred rituals for brides in preparing for their wedding.
Uses of Myrtle
Although the myrtle flower and tree are known for their many uses – from spicing up a meat dish, to adding a bit of sweetness to perfume – they are best known for their place in mythology and magic. The two best known tales tell of Adonis and Aphrodite. Adonis’s story states that his mother, Myrrha – daughter of the king Theias of Assyria – tried to escape from the clutches of her tyrannical parentage, and so the goddess Aphrodite turned her into a myrtle tree.
Theias, still quite angry with his daughter, shot an arrow into the trunk of the tree, which shattered the bark. From the newly made hole, Adonis sprang forth. The story of Aphrodite is connected with that of Adonis. Finding the infant, she fell in love with it; when he grew older, she became smitten with him. Knowing his origins, she named the myrtle tree as one of her sacred plants.
The myrtle flower has several other, looser, connections with Greek myth. For instance, Erato – the muse of marriage and love – wore a crown of roses and myrtle, while Phaedra – an enchantress – became a minor goddess that was associated with myrtle, as well as barley, the moon and rain. In magic, these flowers are commonly used as a sign of respect to the goddess of love, Venus. They are also frequently made into love charms, and placed in love spells.