Posted by: Bystander PJ12 FEB 2014
Years ago I bought a tiny myrtle plant (Myrtus communis) at the Garden Museum, across the road from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Lambeth headquarters. Planted in a sheltered spot outside my back door, it has grown into a healthy shrub. It now gives pleasure through the year with its aromatic, glossy, evergreen leaves, its numerous white flowers in late summer and the fleshy blue-black berries that follow in autumn and feed the local blackbirds in winter.
Myrtle has a Mediterranean origin and held an important place in early Mediterranean cultures. Athenian judges wore it as an emblem of authority, and the wreaths worn by Greek and Roman victors were at first made from myrtle rather than laurel.
Myrtle is also mentioned in ancient scriptures, which associate it with the Garden of Eden. It is important in Judaism, being one of four plants used in observing the festival of Sukkot.
Myrtle berries can be eaten raw or cooked and are sometimes used to flavour savoury dishes. The leaves are occasionally used as a flavouring or to make a tea — once popular in France, where it was believed to preserve women’s youthful appearance. A further use is in perfumery, soaps and skin-care products.
Since ancient times, myrtle has also been used medicinally. The Romans employed it for urinary and respiratory ailments and the Egyptians for nervous afflictions. Modern herbalists use it occasionally for digestive, respiratory and urinary problems.
Myrtle is rich in essential oils and also contains a group of complex compounds that have been dubbed myrtucommulones. In laboratory studies, one of these, myrtucommulone-A, has shown antibacterial, analgesic and strong anti-inflammatory properties. And it has also been found to have a highly selective cytostatic effect on tumours.
Research into this promising compound has, until recently, been hampered by the difficulty of extracting adequate quantities from myrtle leaves. But researchers in Germany have now managed to synthesise it, opening up the potential for further research, including the possible production of simpler analogues tailored to maximise myrtle’s beneficial properties.