Friday, October 27, 2017

On the Use of Myrtle

Myrtle (Myrtus communis) is mentioned in Zechariah 1:8-13 as a sign of peace on earth.  During the night Zechariah had a vision of a man seated on a red horse among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.  The angel of the Lord came to the man among the myrtle trees and said, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”

Over thousands of years myrtle has been featured in the mythology, medicine and the culinary arts of Greece, Rome, Israel, England, Ukraine and China, and various others.  The evergreen leaves of the myrtle tree are either dried like bay leaves for culinary applications, or an oil is extracted from them for medicinal purposes.

Myrtle oil has been found to reduce respiratory issues such as bronchitis and asthma, protect against intestinal conditions, regulate the endocrine system, prevent certain cancers, treat skin diseases, lower blood sugar levels, improve the functioning of the kidneys, boost cognitive strength, and improve heart health.  Applied topically it has been found to effectively clear up acne and blemishes on the skin. 

Myrtle is native across the Mediterranean region, Macaronesia, western Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, but has been cultivated in many countries throughout the world as an ornamental shrub in gardens and parks. Current estimates suggest that myrtle comes in approximately 5950 species in about 132 genera.

In Sardinia and Corsica myrtle berries are used to produce an aromatic liqueur called Mirto.   Many Mediterranean pork dishes include myrtle berries, and roasted baby pig is often stuffed with myrtle sprigs in the belly cavity, to impart an aromatic flavour to the meat.  The berries whole or ground can be used as a pepper substitute.  They contribute to the distinctive flavor of Mortadella sausage and American Bologna.  In Calabria a myrtle branch is threaded through dried figs and then baked infusing the figs with the distinctive flavor of myrtle.

Myrtle and willow bark are identified as effective in relief of pain and fever in the writings of Hippocrates, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, and the Arabian writers.  As early as 2,500 BCE it was prescribed in ancient Sumer for pain.  Myrtle and willows pain relief properties are due to high levels of salicylic acid, a compound synthetically produced today in the form of aspirin.  In Europe and China myrtle is prescribed for sinus infections and rhinosinusitis.

The ancient Greeks believed the rose and the myrtle to be sacred to the goddesses Aphrodite and Demeter:  Myrtle branches were given as offerings in temples dedicated to them and garlands of myrtle were awarded to victors at the games in Thebes.  The Roman poet Virgil wrote that myrtle was preferred above other plants by Venus, just as Bacchus preferred the grape vine and Phoebus the laurel branch. 

At the annual Veneralia, an ancient Roman festival celebrated in honor of Venus the changer of hearts, women wore crowns made of myrtle branches, and myrtle was used in Roman wedding and funerary rituals. Because of symbolic significance, elegant appearance and appealing fragrance, myrtle was an indispensable feature of Roman gardens, and ancient Romans introduced it wherever they went if it was not already endemic. 

In Jewish liturgy, together with palm, willow and citron, myrtle was one of the four sacred plants used to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.  In Jewish mysticism, the myrtle represents the masculine and sprigs of myrtle were given to bridegrooms to boost their prowess before entering the nuptial chamber after a wedding.  This is the origin of the customary inclusion of a sprig of myrtle in European wedding bouquets.