When it comes to shrubs, the common myrtle is about as close to perfection as it gets. It was not by chance that, for the ancients, its diamond shaped leaves represented the all-seeing eyes of wisdom. Its fruit is edible and, in its native lands, turned into a liqueur. It is tolerant of all soil types and will handle a freeze just fine, being an appropriate selection for Antelope Valley gardens.
How wise is the myrtle? No plant native to a dry climate has leaves with a more glistening and fresher countenance than the myrtle (Myrtus communis). Normally, such polished foliage is associated with tropical plants. Somehow, the myrtle always looks like it has just been watered or rained upon, even while growing in a habitat that includes the arid lands of the Middle East.
In truth, if you are patient, your myrtle, left unpruned, will eventually become a small tree. No more than fifteen or twenty feet tall at maturity, a myrtle tree is just as much about curving branches and exfoliating bark as it is about lustrous leaves.
The myrtle is so much in a class of its own, with such distinguished characteristics, that many plants with no botanical relationship to it have borrowed its name. Most notable among these is crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), known for its peeling bark and mottled trunk that strongly resemble features found on the mature wood of common myrtle. Incidentally, the flowers of crape (or crepe) myrtle have the texture of crepe paper and so now you know the derivation of the other half of the name of the ubiquitous crape myrtle tree.
Vinca minor is a ground cover whose common name is creeping myrtle. Creeping myrtle is meant for the shade. Its leaves are somewhat glossy, approximately diamond shaped, and deep green in color. Thus, you might not easily draw a parallel with the common myrtle’s luminescent light green or even gold infused foliage which is evident this time of year in flushes of new growth.
Vinca minor has pinwheel lavender blue flowers which are visible most of the year. Both Vinca minor and its cousin, Vinca major, which is similar to Vinca minor except that its leaves and flowers are about twice the size, need regular moisture to prosper. Vinca major makes an excellent subject for container gardens since it defies confinement and spills over its container’s edges in long foliar chains.
Oregon myrtle, also known as California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), is native to Northern California and Oregon and is famous for its pungent foliage which smells like camphor (or, to be precise, like Campho-Phenique, the anti-itch preparation) when crushed. Common myrtle and Oregon myrtle, although without botanical kinship, share leaf compounds found among many plants native to both the California shrub forest, called chaparral, and to the Mediterranean shrub forest, called maquis, ecosystems.
These compounds are known as essential or volatile oils and they serve a dual purpose. The first is to retain plant moisture. Much like radiator coolant whose viscosity keeps water from boiling over, essential or volatile oils, in plant sap, inhibit plant water loss. The second function of volatile oils is to assist in self-immolation for the purpose of germinating seeds. Fire is an essential part of chaparral and maquis ecology since, without it, the hard seed coats possessed by plants in these ecosystems may not open. Foliar volatile oils make it easier for plants to catch fire for the purpose of germinating their seeds and sprouting seedlings of the next generation, ensuring the legacy of the mother plant.
The myrtle family includes several noteworthy genera that are endemic to Australia and New Zealand. These genera are united by their bark, which is generally exfoliating or self-peeling. Myrtle genera endemic to Australia include Eucalyptus, Melaleuca, and Callistemon. Callistemon and Melaleuca are famous for their bottlebrush flowers although some Melaleuca species, such as the lavender pink blooming Melaleuca nesophila, have pompon blooms. Tea trees (Leptospermum spp.) are another myrtle genus, given their name by Captain Cook who brewed their leaves for refreshment when he landed in New Zealand.
Guava trees are also myrtles and a bonus of growing them, once you have enjoyed their fruit, is their smooth bark. Pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana), while not considered a true guava, is highly ornamental on account of its blue-gray foliage and red stamened white flowers and, yes, smooth bark too. The flowers of pineapple guava, which may be grown as a hedge, are sugary sweet and make an irresistible snack while strolling in the garden.
I was inspired to write about myrtles on account of an email I received from Hannah Almstead of Encino, who inquired about the identity of a tree at Andres Pico Adobe in Mission Hills. It’s a beautiful common myrtle specimen and could be 100 years old or older, with the lifespan of this species reaching up to 150 years. You can visit the tree, located at 10940 Sepulveda Boulevard, on Mondays from 10-4 and on the third Sunday of the month from 1-4. Preserved by the San Fernando Valley Historical Society, this adobe structure is the oldest residence in the Valley, constructed in 1834.
Tip of the Week: There is a dwarf version of common myrtle known as Myrtus communis tarentina ‘Compacta.’ This is a highly popular selection for a low formal hedge, growing to a height of 3-4 feet. I have found this plant to be somewhat problematic since it occasionally shows signs of iron deficiency, meaning new growth is chlorotic, characterized by yellow foliage with green veins. In addition, the plant seems to lose stem strength as it ages and may start to flop and lose its tight form. Regular common myrtle, on the other hand, may be kept as low as you desire and you never need to worry about chlorosis or loss of stem strength.