Posted by: Bystander PJ6 MAY 2010
Several years ago I bought a tiny myrtle plant (Myrtus communis) during a visit to the Garden Museum, just across the road from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s London headquarters.
The plant found a home in a sheltered spot outside my back door, where, unlike most of the plants I buy, it thrived and grew into a healthy shrub. It now gives pleasure throughout the year with its aromatic, glossy, evergreen leaves, its numerous white flowers in late summer and the fleshy blue-black berries that follow the flowers.
Myrtle originates in the Mediterranean region, where it held an important place in ancient cultures. Athenian judges wore it as an emblem of honour and authority. The wreaths worn by Greek and Roman victors, although generally described as laurel wreaths, were at first made from myrtle.
Myrtle is also alluded to in ancient religious scriptures, which associate it with the Garden of Eden. It remains important in Judaism, being one of four plants used in observing the thanksgiving festival of Succot.
Myrtle berries can be eaten raw or cooked and are sometimes used to flavour savoury dishes. The leaves are also occasionally used as a flavouring or to make a tea, which was once popular among French women, who believed it would preserve their youthful appearance and vigour.
A further use is in perfumery, soaps and skin-care products. A perfumed water, known as eau d’ange (angel water), is obtained from the flowers.
Since ancient times, myrtle has also been used as a medicinal plant. The Romans employed it for urinary and respiratory ailments and the Egyptians for nervous afflictions. In modern herbalism it is occasionally used for digestive, respiratory and urinary problems.
As well as being rich in essential oils, myrtle contains a group of complex compounds called myrtucommulones. Pharmacologists have been particularly excited by myrtucommulone-A, which in laboratory studies has been shown to have antibacterial, analgesic and strong anti-inflammatory properties. And it has recently been found to have a highly selective cytostatic effect on tumours.
Research into this promising compound has until now been hampered by the difficulty of extracting it from myrtle leaves in adequate quantities. But researchers in Germany have recently announced its successful synthesis in the laboratory. This breakthrough opens up the potential for further research into myrtucommulone-A. More importantly, it opens up the possibility of synthesising simpler analogues tailored to maximise the beneficial properties.
While awaiting the results of further studies, I may brew myself a pot of myrtle tea and sample its possible health benefits for myself.