Above, from left to right: common myrtle is grown in pots at The Cloisters and brought indoors before frost; detail of the ivory-white blossoms of Myrtus communis; detail of the blue-black fruits of the common myrtle.
In myrtle shades oft sings the happy swain,
In myrtle shades despairing ghost complain.
The myrtle crowns the happy lovers’ heads,
Th’ unhappy lovers’ graves the myrtle spreads.
—Verses Written at The Request of a Gentleman to whom a Lady had Given a Sprig of Myrtle, by Samuel Johnson
This eighteenth-century verse is a deft summation of many centuries of the myrtle’s association with love, lovers, and the goddess of love. Although many plants and flowers were dedicated to Venus in antiquity, the myrtle was the most sacred. Myrtus communis grew near the sea, from whose foam the goddess was born, and according to Ovid (Fasti, 4. 141–43) Venus used the myrtle to screen her nakedness when she rose from the waves. A temple to Venus Murtea in Rome was still surrounded by a sacred grove of myrtle in the first century B.C.
A plant of immortality, myrtle was an emblem of love and desire; poets, especially love poets, were crowned with it, and doorposts were wreathed with myrtle in nuptial celebrations. All these connotations were preserved and embellished in medieval and Renaissance poems and allegories of love, but the myrtle was also conceived as a plant sacred to the Virgin, and was worn by virgin brides. In biblical tradition, the myrtle was a plant of peace and joy, prized by the Hebrews, and was used to shade the booths at the first Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, in 445 B.C. Because of a similarity between the Hebrew word for myrtle and Hadassah, the original name of the heroine Esther, the plant was equated with the queen who saved her people.
According to the ancient Greek geographer Pausanias, the tiny “perforations” visible on the leaves were made by the unhappy Phaedra, who pricked them with a hairpin in revulsion at her own lawless passion for her stepson Hippolytus; she later hanged herself near a myrtle tree. These perforations are actually the vessels for the aromatic oil in the leaf.
Myrtle was greatly valued for this oil, which was included in many perfumes and unguents and is still important in perfumery today. The distilled water made from myrtle leaves is known as eau d’ anges, or “water of angels”.
In its native habitat, the warmth of the sun is enough to bring out the scent of the leaves, but here at The Cloisters they only yield their delightful fragrance when crushed. (We are in possession of a small, electrified copper alembic, but I haven’t experimented with it yet. Myrtle, which we have in abundance, would be a very good choice for our first distillation.)
The Roman natural historian Pliny says that eleven different sorts of myrtle—a very variable plant—were cultivated in the first century, and variant forms were known and grown in the Renaissance. Dr. Arthur Tucker, an authority on aromatic herbs, and the herb grower Tom DeBaggio, describe twelve forms of this tender shrub in their comprehensive reference on herbs used for flavor and fragrance, The Big Book of Herbs (2000).
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Coats, Alice M. Garden. Shrubs and Their Histories. 1964. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992 (reprint with additional notes by Dr. John L. Creech).
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Levi D’Ancona, Mirella. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Firenze: L. S. Olschki, 1977.
Moldenke, Harold N. and Alma L. Moldenke. Plants of the Bible. Waltham, MA: 1952. Reprinted. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.
Tucker, Arthur O. and Thomas DeBaggio. The Big Book of Herbs: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference to Herbs of Flavor and Fragrance. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 2000.