Myrtus

This robust and versatile genus provides year-round interest, aromatic foliage and drought tolerance, writes Jim Handley.

Myrtus communis subsp. tarentina 'Variegata' - photo: Graham Clarke
Myrtus communis subsp. tarentina 'Variegata' - photo: Graham Clarke

The common myrtle, Myrtus communis Award of Garden Merit (AGM), is often overlooked, thought of by many as a tender shrub only suitable for south-facing, sheltered walls. While this is true to a degree, in recent years and with our warming climate, this genus has, and will, offer more to the astute landscaper.

Myrtus is a small genus from the Myrtaceae family consisting now of just a few species, the main one in Europe being M. communis AGM. Botanists have reclassified the genus into many different genera such as Luma, Ugni and Myrteola. Myrtus is naturally found in the scrub areas and woodlands of the Mediterranean region.

It is a rounded, evergreen shrub or small tree that has aromatic foliage of oppositely set leaves. White, bowl-shaped flowers are borne singly and have five petals with a mass of tufted stamens. After a long, hot summer, oblong to ellipsoid fruits can appear, usually purple-black, but white in M. communis var. leucocarpa.

It is ideal to use in sensory gardens, herb borders and for structure in herbaceous and shrub borders. The double, white-flowering M. communis 'Flore Pleno' makes a good floral display during late summer, while variegated foliage is found on the white-edged M. communis subsp. tarentina 'Microphylla Variegata'.

The plant can provide an alternative to traditional focal plants such as box and bay, providing interest throughout the year and is equally suitable for formal and informal schemes.

Myrtus can be susceptible to frost, especially when young, so a sheltered, sunny position is favourable, but will show more resilience as temperatures rise. Strong, drying winds can also be detrimental to the foliage. Reversion can be a problem with some of the variegated types, but simple removal pruning will remedy this. It prefers free-draining, moderately fertile soil and will cope with coastal conditions, where some of the larger specimens can be found.

Once planted, routine maintenance will keep this plant healthy and long-lived. Ensure it is established well in its first year and mulch lightly in late autumn to help protect against severe winter frosts.

Pruning should be carried out in spring, removing unwanted branches at their base. There are no pests and diseases that cause any serious problems for Myrtus.

Propagation is straightforward. Semi-ripe basal cuttings 10-15cm in length are taken in November and rooted directly in a cold frame. Plants should be ready to plant out in the spring.

WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY

- Simon Lowndes, co-owner, MacPennys Nursery, Dorset

"We sell a number of Myrtus, mainly communis and subsp. tarentina cultivars. We find the plant to be an average seller, mainly to the general public, but a number of landscapers do buy from us and we find that with this genus it is mainly the true plantsman who chooses it.

"People tend to buy more when the plant is flowering, and they also like the variegated types. Although the genus has been taxonomically divided we sell Luma apiculata 'Glanleam Gold' (syn. Myrtus apiculata 'Glanleam Gold') as a myrtle and it is our best seller. After that it is probably the M. communis subsp. tarentina and cultivars as they are compact growing and suitable for containers as well as in borders.

"We recommend the entire genus as all cultivars are relatively low maintenance and easy to grow. They do need to be planted in the correct place - somewhere sheltered - but can be left to grow into a small tree or cut back hard. They are becoming more popular as our climate warms as they are drought tolerant as well as being able to cope with spells of waterlogging."

- Jonathan Jones, head gardener, Tregothnan Nursery, Cornwall

"We specialise in unusual and rare plants and produce them in larger sizes for instant effect. We sell a range of Myrtus cultivars and varieties and in addition to the general landscaper we provide a lot of cut foliage for the floristry industry. In harvesting that, we find myrtle extremely tolerant of hard pruning.

"The florists tend to like the variegated types such as M. communis subsp. tarentina 'Microphylla Variegata', which has white-margined leaves, while landscapers tend to go for the more traditional M. communis Award of Garden Merit and its cultivars.

"We are currently selling an interesting cultivar called M. variegata 'Penlee', which is a local discovery. It is a tidy grower, forming a small to medium tree if left unchecked and it seems to be relatively hardy and long-lived.

"Once myrtles are established in the ground they can be difficult to move, which is why we grow them in a restrictive rooting system, but other than that they are pretty versatile. We feel there is plenty of scope for them within the wider landscape sector."

IN PRACTICE

- Kim Hurst, co-owner, The Cottage Herbery, Worcestershire

"As well as producing myrtle in our nursery we use it within our floral displays at various horticultural shows. It gives height and volume to a display on which we can then build with other plants.

"It provides year-round interest, with evergreen foliage, beautiful white flowers from mid-summer and deep purple berries for added interest.

"It works well as a distinctive focal point, instead of the usual bay tree, within other semi-hardwood plants such as lavender and southernwood. It's also pretty versatile as you can treat it as a tree or prune it hard to keep a compact shape.

"Once it has become established and been through a few winters its hardiness increases and if it does get slightly caught by frost, it readily throws new shoots from the base in the spring."

SPECIES AND CULTIVARS

- Myrtus communis Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is also known as the common myrtle. It is an upright shrub that arches with age and bears ovate, glossy, dark green leaves to 5cm long. Solitary, five-petalled, white flowers with central tufts of numerous stamens appear from mid- to late summer and are followed by purple-black, oblong-ellipsoid berries.

- M. communis 'Compacta' is a dwarf variety and a much denser plant.

- M. communis 'Flore Pleno' boasts double, white flowers, which last much longer than is usual with the species.

- M. communis 'Variegata' has creamy-white variegated leaves.

- M. communis var. acutifolia has a more erect habit than other varieties of the species and features long, pointed, lanceolate leaves.

- M. communis var. buxifolia has the same characteristics as other members of the species but carries smaller, box-like foliage.

- M. communis var. italica is narrowly upright, with 3cm x 1cm, oval to lanceolate leaves.

- M. communis var. latifolia displays 2-3cm x 1-1.5cm oval to oblong acuminate leaves.

- M. communis var. leucocarpa produces white fruits in late summer to autumn.

- M. communis var. minima is another dwarf version but with much smaller-sized foliage than the original species.

- M. communis var. romana displays much larger leaves than usual with this variety, up to 4.5cm x 2cm. They are broadly ovate, strongly acuminate and light green in colour in whorls of three to four leaves.

- M. communis subsp. tarentina AGM is a very decorative, compact shrub with small, narrow leaves. Pink-tinged flowers emerge in mid-summer to autumn, which later in the season produce white berries.

- M. communis subsp. tarentina 'Microphylla Variegata' is similar to others in the subspecies but has white-margined leaves.

- M. communis subsp. tarentina 'Variegata' features grey-green leaves with creamy white edges.

- M. variegata 'Penlee' carries glossy, green leaves edged creamy yellow and large clusters of white flowers followed by dark purple fruits.


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