The Myrtle (Myrtus) is a genus of one or two species of flowering plants in the family Myrtaceae, native to southern Europe and north Africa. They are evergreen shrubs or small trees, growing to 5 m tall. The leaves are entire, 3-5 cm long, with a pleasantly fragrant essential oil. The star-like flowers have five petals and sepals, and an amazingly large number of stamens. Petals are usually white, with globose blue-black berries containing several seeds. The flowers are pollinated by insects, and the seeds dispersed by birds that feed on the berries.
The Common Myrtle Myrtus communis, is widespread in the Mediterranean region and is also by far the most commonly cultivated. It was sacred to Aphrodite. The other species, Saharan Myrtle M. nivellei, is restricted to the Tassili n'Ajjer mountains in southern Algeria and the Tibesti Mountains in Chad, where it occurs in small areas of sparse relict woodland near the centre of the Sahara Desert; it is listed as an endangered species. However, some botanists are not convinced that M. nivellei is sufficiently distinct to be treated as a separate species.
In Rome, Virgil explains that “the poplar is most dear to Alcides, the vine to Bacchus, the myrtle to lovely Venus, and his own laurel to Phoebus.” At the Veneralia, women bathed wearing crowns woven of myrtle branches, and myrtle was used in wedding rituals
In Jewish liturgy, it is one of the four sacred plants of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. Three branches are held by the worshippers along with a citron, a palm leaf, and two willow branches. In Jewish mysticism, the myrtle represents the phallic, masculine force at work in the universe. For this reason myrtle branches were sometimes given the bridegroom as he entered the nuptial chamber after a wedding (Tos. Sotah 15:8; Ketubot 17a). Myrtles are both the symbol and scent of Eden (BhM II: 52; Sefer ha-Hezyonot 17). The Hechalot text Merkavah Rabbah requires one to suck on a myrtle leaves as an element of a theurgic ritual. Kabbalists link myrtle to the sefirah of Tiferet and use sprigs in their Shabbat (especially Havdalah) rites to draw down its harmonizing power as the week is initiated (Shab. 33a; Zohar Chadash, SoS, 64d; Sha’ar ha-Kavvanot, 2, pp. 73-76).