The myrtle plant is a typical wild species of the Mediterranean scrub. It boasts an ancient folk tradition that has its roots in the mythology of classical peoples. In our country, myrtle is mainly found in the coastal areas of the South and the Islands, up to 600 meters above sea level. Sardinia is the region where it is most present and where the berries are used to produce the famous myrtle liqueur. Given the numerous medicinal and aromatic properties of the plant, its uses are certainly not limited to just liqueur production.
Myrtle is a very hardy plant, easy to propagate, and adapts well to both cultivation in the family orchard and in specialized plantations. The important thing is to understand its characteristics, pedoclimatic needs, the best periods, and techniques for reproduction.
The common names of myrtle
Myrtle (Myrtus communis) is an evergreen plant of the botanical family Myrtaceae. Scholars derive its scientific name from the Greek myron = fragrant essence, clearly referring to the plant’s aromatic properties. In our folk tradition (especially in Lazio and Campania), this plant is also known by the name “mortella.” Its ancient use was to flavor mortadella, and it seems that the famous sausage owes its name to this plant. Other regional names include:
- Sardinia: multa, murtha, mustha, murta durci
- Calabria: morzidàra, morz
- Sicily: murtedda
- Liguria: murtea, mortin
The myrtle plant has a strong symbolic significance and has always been considered a symbol of femininity. To the Greeks, for example, myrtle evokes the name of Myrsìne, a young girl from Attica (a historical region of Greece) who, after defeating her peer in a gymnastic contest, was killed by the same rival who couldn’t accept defeat. The young girl was transformed by the goddess Athena into a myrtle bush. In Roman mythology, instead, myrtle is associated with the goddess Venus (Aphrodite for the Greeks), the goddess of beauty, love, and fertility.
Botanical characteristics of the myrtle plant
The myrtle plant has a shrubby-bushy bearing, with very dense branches. It’s a slow-growing species that can become several centuries old. The height varies according to age and growing environment. We have small bushes that are 50 cm tall, but also large, dense shrubs that reach 3-4 m. The plant has strong sprouting activity and, as we saw with the strawberry tree, is one of the first plants capable of vegetating after a fire. Younger branches have a reddish bark that turns gray over time. The leaves are opposite on the branches, thick and leathery, with a shiny leaf blade. They are lanceolate-acuminate in shape, with an entire margin. They have a short petiole and are 1 to 5 cm long. On the upper surface, they have translucent punctate glands, rich in essential oil, which releases a characteristic aroma when the leaf is rubbed.
Flowers and blooming
The flowers of the myrtle plant have an intoxicating and aromatic fragrance, similar to that of the leaves. They have a diameter of about 3 cm, are solitary, and emerge from the leaf axils. They have a long peduncle, consist of five white petals, and have numerous stamens (up to 50), easily visible due to their long filaments. Myrtle typically blooms in May and June, and the flowering is usually abundant. However, due to particularly favorable genetic and climatic factors, a second flowering often occurs in early autumn. This unique phenomenon is appreciated by bees and other pollinating insects. Still, mono-floral myrtle honey is quite rare because the flowers lack nectar, and the foraging bees only collect pollen. Nonetheless, the flowers contribute to the production of wildflower honey.
Fruits and natural reproduction
Myrtle fruits are small ellipsoidal berries. When fully ripe, they are bright blue, violet, almost black in color. They are about 1 cm in size and are easily recognizable due to their typical waxy coating. Another distinctive feature is the hardened remains of the flower calyx, forming a crown-like structure at the top. This distinctive trait is similar to that of the dog rose. The berries persist for a long time on the plant, maturing from late autumn to January. Harvesting should occur when the berries begin to shrivel or form wrinkles. Inside the fruit, numerous kidney-shaped seeds are contained. When these are digested by birds, which are fond of the berries, the dissemination occurs. An interesting fact about myrtle berries is that even ants, by dispersing the seeds into the ground, participate in natural reproduction. This process is called myrmecochory.
Cultivating the myrtle plant
As mentioned, myrtle is a very hardy wild plant that can be cultivated in the family orchard. Its abundant flowering, showy fruiting, and aromatic scent make it a valuable ornamental species. Myrtle is ideal for enriching our garden, forming hedges, or even for planting in pots on balconies. However, despite its hardiness, myrtle fears intense and prolonged cold. This is precisely why its distribution is mainly along the coastal areas. Therefore, if you choose to cultivate myrtle in northern regions, you must take steps to protect the plant from winter frost.
How and when to reproduce myrtle
Myrtle can be reproduced in two distinct ways: by seed or by cutting. Naturally, in specialized nurseries, you can also purchase already formed myrtle plants. Here is an in-depth guide on planting fruit trees in the orchard.
Reproduction by seed is simple and economical. It should be done in winter, taking seeds from fully mature berries. This operation is carried out immediately after harvest, as the seeds lose their germination power easily. Simply prepare pots with a mix of soil for acidophilic plants (like this one) and sand, burying the open berries 2 cm deep. These will release the seeds. The mix ratio is 80% soil and 20% sand. For the initial period, it’s advisable to keep the pots in a place protected from frost, such as a small balcony greenhouse (you can find an inexpensive one here). As the plant grows, transplant it into larger pots. The final planting can be done in autumn of the same year. However, plants obtained from seeds are less vigorous and take longer to enter production.
Reproduction by cutting
For more vigorous plants and no delay in entering production, you can opt for reproduction by cutting. In spring, portions of semi-mature branches, preferably without flowers, are taken from a mother plant. These are buried in a medium-sized pot with a soil mix similar to that described for seed reproduction. To improve the rooting percentage of the cutting, it’s recommended to soak it in water for a few days before burying it. The pot should be kept in a sunny position, but the soil should always remain moist. In the following spring, it can be planted in the open ground.
Soil, irrigation, and fertilization
In its wild state, myrtle doesn’t have significant requirements. It adapts quite well to soils low in organic matter and dry. It prefers neutral or slightly acidic soils and avoids those with a calcareous reaction. When supported with water and organic fertilization, the myrtle plant shows marked vegetative and productive vigor. Therefore, our advice is to fertilize the plant at least once a year with mature manure, household compost, or worm humus. Additionally, if possible, do not let it suffer from water shortages in overly dry seasons.
Training form and pruning
Myrtle grows well when allowed to follow its natural form, i.e., the bush. Leaving the plant free to grow, the pruning interventions should be quite minimal. In fact, the myrtle plant only produces on the year’s branches. For this reason, pruning is limited to containment of growth and rejuvenation, removing dry or damaged parts. In Sardinia, it should be noted, the cultivation as a small tree has been experimented, training the plant to 50 cm in height. In this case, pruning is more frequent, mainly aimed at removing basal shoots. The tree form facilitates harvesting but requires more care, such as providing supports. Therefore, our advice is to leave the plant in its natural form.