common myrtle

Myrtle

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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.

Modern uses

Myrtle is used in the islands of Sardinia and Corsica to produce an aromatic liqueur called "Mirto"' by macerating it in alcohol. It is known as one of the national drinks of Sardinia. There are two varieties of this drink: the "Mirto Rosso" (red) produced by macerating the berries, and the "Mirto Bianco" (white) produced from the leaves.

Uses in myth and ritual

In Greek mythology and ritual the myrtle was sacred to the goddesses Aphrodite and also Demeter: Artemidorus asserts that in interpreting dreams “a myrtle garland signifies the same as an olive garland, except that it is especially auspicious for farmers because of Demeter and for women because of Aphrodite. For the plant is sacred to both goddesses.” Pausanias explains that one of the Graces in the sanctuary at Elis holds a myrtle branch because “the rose and the myrtle are sacred to Aphrodite and connected with the story of Adonis, while the Graces are of all deities the nearest related to Aphrodite.” Myrtle is the garland of Iacchus, according to Aristophanes, and of the victors at the Theban Iolaea, held in honour of the Theban hero Iolaus.

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 pagan and wicca rituals, myrtle is commonly associated with and sacred to Beltane (May Day).

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).

Ancient medicinal uses

"The myrtle occupies a prominent place in the writings of Hippocrates, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, and the Arabian writers"--Pharmacographia Indica 1891 edition, London.

Related plants

Many other related species native to South America, New Zealand and elsewhere, previously classified in a wider interpretation of the genus Myrtus, are now treated in other genera, Eugenia, Lophomyrtus, Luma, Rhodomyrtus, Syzygium, Ugni, and at least a dozen other genera. The name "myrtle" is also used to refer to unrelated plants in several other genera: "Crape myrtle" (Lagerstroemia, Lythraceae), "Wax myrtle" (Morella, Myricaceae), and "Myrtle" or "Creeping myrtle" (Vinca, Apocynaceae).

Footnotes

External links

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