By Lisa Marun.
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s recent royal wedding reminds us of the history and tradition that are inherent in such celebrations. Whether we come from royalty or not, we share these experiences not only with those near and dear to us, but also with the generations before us. Wedding gowns and bridal veils are commonly employed as the ‘something old’ for brides, but some heirlooms are not carefully stored in closets for years on end before being dusted off for the big day.
As someone who appreciates the value that plants bring to our lives, I was comforted to learn that despite all of the traditions broken in this recent British royal wedding (arguably for the better), a subtle long-standing custom was preserved. Tucked in the bride’s bouquet was a sprig of common myrtle (Myrtus communis), as has been the case for at least ten previous British royal unions since Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were wedded in 1840. (In fact, after her wedding, Queen Victoria planted the sprig of myrtle from her bridal bouquet and all British royal brides since have taken their myrtle cutting from this plant and its descendants.)
And if nearly 180 years of tradition aren’t enough, myrtle is the stuff of myths. Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, is often depicted adorned with myrtle’s dainty white flowers and aromatic leaves; goddess of grain and fertility, Demeter, as well as Aphrodite's Roman counterpart, Venus, were also under myrtle’s spell. The plant also has its place in the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot), pagan rituals, and, in Christianity, has been associated with the Virgin Mary. More recently, during the Renaissance, the evergreen myrtle came to symbolize everlasting love and thus began the tradition of including it in bridal bouquets. Carrying the messages of hope, beauty, love, immortality, prosperity, sweetness, justice, and recovery, the mighty myrtle is no lightweight in the garden or in a bouquet.
As an added bonus, common myrtle has some earthly merits to match the lofty ideals it represents. In its indigenous Mediterranean region, the leaves, berries, and seeds have been used since biblical times for culinary, medicinal, and household purposes. The leaves are often used in meat dishes and can be easily substituted for bay leaves, while the dark, bitter berries can replace black pepper or juniper berries. In Sardinia and Corsica, the berries are used to make the local liqueur, Mirto. Myrtle is a champ when it comes to relieving physical ailments as well; scientific research backs ancient uses of different parts of the plants as a "stimulant, antiseptic, astringent and hypoglycemic, and they are considered to be a health remedy for asthma, eczema, psoriasis, diarrhea, gastrointestinal disorders and urinary infections."
Fortunately, you don't need to plan a royal wedding or be a Greek goddess, naturopathic doctor, or Mediterranean chef to enjoy the beauty and fragrance of Myrtus communis in your garden. This drought-tolerant, medium-sized shrub is well-suited for Southern California's climate and is a magnet for pollinators who enjoy the healthy flowers and berries on this nearly pest and disease resistant plant. And along with its intoxicating aroma and a profusion of spring and summer flowers, you'll enjoy the added bonus of having a tangible connection to the love and hope that this plant has represented throughout history—and those are two things that every royal and commoner gardener should have in their garden.