The common myrtle (Myrtus communis) has a modest appearance, but its history is long and distinguished. A native of southern Europe and western Asia, the little tree was sacred to the ancient Greeks; it was a favorite of the goddess Aphrodite and was commonly planted near temples dedicated to her. In the modern world, myrtle is often used in hedges and screens or as a backdrop in perennial beds.
Common myrtle is a small evergreen tree with glossy, dark green leaves that are 1 to 2 inches long and oval- or lance-shaped. Young trees gradually develop a bushy upright form and can eventually reach heights of between 15 and 20 feet, although a height of 6 feet is more typical. The tree produces small, fragrant white or pinkish flowers in the late spring or early summer and edible berries that ripen to a dark blue-black color in the fall.
Myrtle is frost-tender and is susceptible to winter damage from wind, so it's best planted in a sheltered location. It is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 8 to 10; in cooler climates, it is often grown outdoors in pots during the summer and brought indoors during the winter. It prefers full sun or partial shade, and once it is established, it is tolerant of heat and drought. Myrtle is, in fact, sensitive to humidity and does not do well in moist, poorly drained soils.
Although myrtle is not a large tree, growers have developed several cultivars that are even smaller than the wild variety. "Compacta" grows very slowly and reaches a mature height of only about 2 feet. "Microphylla" is moderately larger in stature than "Compacta," but it is characterized by narrow, smaller-than-normal leaves. "Boetica," also sometimes called twisted myrtle, is a larger variety, reaching between 9 and 12 feet in height, and it develops a gnarled, contorted trunk and branches.
Pests and Problems
In good conditions, myrtle is fairly sturdy and not especially prone to any pest or disease problems. When it is grown in wet or poorly drained soil, however, it is vulnerable to root rot and sooty mold. It may be subject to scale insect infestations, and in hot weather, it may also be susceptible to attacks by thrips and spider mites.