What are Myrtle (Myrtus) & Luma (Luma)?
Myrtle (Myrtus) hardy evergreen shrub, that will tolerate temperatures down to -10C if grown out of the north wind and in a well drained soil. It can grow to 2-3m in both height and spread. From the family Myrtaceae, Myrtle is native across the warm Mediterranean region and has been cultivated in England from around the 16th century.
Common across the Myrtaceae family are its attractive, aromatic, white flowers that occur from early summer until early autumn. Each flower has a dense cluster of gold stamens that are followed by dark blue-black berries. The leaves of Myrtle are oval, glossy, dark green and fragrant. It is a truly fragrant genus of plants, most of them shrubs or small trees.
Two of our favourite Myrtles are:
- Myrtle Tarentina (Myrtus communis Terentina) which is a small leaved version of the common Myrtle (Myrtus communis) and has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit; and
- Merion Myrtle (Myrtus communis ‘Merion’) that is rarer and has architecturally beautiful structure as its leaves form a spiral down a branch when viewed from the top.
We have found that many gardeners know Myrtles but not their “cousins", Lumas and many are confused as to which is which. Lumas share many of the same traits as Myrtles being from the same family Myrtaceae. They were previously both classified as Myrtles and only in the early 90s were reclassified to Luma. Therefore, a lot of the maintenance and propagation techniques discussed below are the same. They have similar attractive flowers but they are more compact and closed. The leaves of Luma can vary in shape and can sometimes even be round.
Different to Myrtles, which can be a little tender, Lumas are from South America and are very hardy therefore needing less protection. They are even adapted to the clay soil found at Jekka’s Herb Farm. This makes them the ideal evergreen plants for the changeable UK climate. All Lumas and Myrtles can also be grown by the sea as their foliage is not damaged by salty water.
Lumas we are particularly fond of are:
- Chilean Luma (Luma chequen) that may appeal to you for its height. It is the most robust of the Lumas and can stand at up to 15m, with a spread of up to 6m, making it an ideal focal point for a large garden or, as we have used it, as a hedge as it can also be cut hard to keep it in shape.
- Luma Arrayan (Luma apiculata) that has the most attractive cinnamon bark as it matures and makes an ideal specimen evergreen plant within the herb garden; and
- Dwarf Luma (Luma apiculata ‘Nanum’) that makes an ideal low hedge as it is very slow growing; it prefers a well-drained slightly acidic soil but will adapt to a well-drained loam.
Chilean Luma (Luma chequen)
Want to know more? See more of members of the Myrtaceae family in Jekkapedia, which includes the popular Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) with its delectable round dark red, edible fruit known affectionately as “Queen Victoria’s Strawberries”; try Jekka's Ugni Muffins.
Background, meaning and mythology
As mentioned, Lumas were previously classified as Myrtles and therefore, the background, meaning and mythology all relates to Myrtle.
Myrtle is from the Greek Myrtos, which is a popular girl’s name in Greece and for good reason. In Greek mythology, Myrtle is associated with Venus and Aphrodite, two famous Deities representing the female nature.
The story goes that Venus transformed one of her priestesses called Myrrh into Myrtle in order to protect her from an overeager suitor. Venus herself wore a wreath of Myrtle when she was given the golden apple by Paris in recognition of her beauty. When she arose from the sea, she was carrying a spring of Myrtle, which to this day grows well near the sea, flourishing in the salt air.
Myrtle trees were planted around Aphrodite’s temple, the goddess of love, beauty and passion. Furthermore, it is considered an aphrodisiac and brides carry it in their bouquets in hopes of a prosperous marriage.
Propagating Myrtle (Myrtus) & Luma (Luma)
Myrtle and Luma are best propagated by taking softwood cuttings in early summer and semi-hardwood cuttings in early autumn both from non-flowering shoots. With both methods, pot up when well rooted and grow on in the pot for about 2 seasons. This is because they both benefit from being grown in a pot for the first 2 years until established and strong. Then plant out into a prepared site.
How to grow Myrtle (Myrtus) & Luma (Luma)
Both Myrtle and Luma require the same growing and maintenance techniques. However, as previously mentioned, Luma is from South America and is a lot hardier than Myrtle, which is a lovely, tender Mediterranean native.
They will both grow in fertile well-drained soil in a sunny position. They are hardy to -10°C in dry cold winters and variegated forms can even survive to -5°C. However, they need to be protected in wet, cold, damp winters. Myrtle is far more susceptible to the wet and the elements. Jekka’s top tip is to plant them against a warm south- or west- facing wall as this will not only protect them against the winter winds but also cut down the rainfall it receives by approximately, 25 percent.
Please be aware that if temperatures in your garden consistently fall below -10°C, it is best to grow Myrtle and Luma in containers using a soil-based potting compost. Then bring them under cover for the winter months to shelter them from getting over wet. Both Myrtle and Luma like to be pot bound, so pot on slowly and not too often.
Like all container-grown plants, it is important to water well in the summer months and allow it to dry in winter. Watch your watering at all times; if in doubt, it is better to give it less than more. Jekka feeds with a liquid seaweed fertilizer weekly during the flowering period, we recommend Maxicrop Liquid Seaweed. This serves as a multivitamin to pot plants and extends the flowering period. However, too much feed will prevent the plant from flowering.
Another consideration when growing in a pot, is that Luma, which in the ground can grow to 15m, will be constrained to 3m. This made it possible for Jekka to display them at the RHS flower shows.
How to prune Myrtle (Myrtus) & Luma (Luma)
For both Myrtle and Luma, trim back growth to regain shape in spring, not autumn, to avoid damaging or even killing the plant. This is because the cold and wet can access the plant through the pruning cuts so it is important to prune in spring after the all threat of frosts has passed. Jekka’s top tip when pruning is to ensure that your shears are sharp to avoid splitting the branches.
A plus to both Myrtles and Lumas is that they produce growth from old wood so you can be quite brave and use shears to re-establish a good dome shape. Also, if a branch does get broken or the tips do get scorched you simply have to cut back and the new growth will come from the old wood.
Want to know more? Watch Jekka’s videos on pruning other herbs in Jekka’s Herbetum: Jekka's Videos on Pruning Herbs
Harvesting for medicinal and culinary uses
Both Myrtle and Luma have culinary uses and the leaves, flowers and berries as well as the bark have all been used in cooking.
They are both evergreen but the best flavour leaf appears in midsummer on the new shoots that have started to change colour. Like Bay, when used for cooking, the leaves are not eaten but used to flavour and should be removed before serving. They have a warm, spicy, slightly bitter aromatic flavour but be aware they can be overpowering so use in moderation. Add to soups, casseroles, stews, vegetables, poultry or meat dishes.
Food flavoured with the smoke of burning Myrtle wood are common in rural areas of Italy and Sardinia so using Myrtle in your cooking could be an excellent way to reminisce over past holidays. As an easier alternative is to simply add Myrtle leaves to the glowing coals of a barbeque to obtain a similar effect.
In summer you can harvest fresh flowers of both Myrtle and Luma. They have a warm, spicy flavour so add them sparingly to rice and pasta dishes.
The ripe berries can be harvested from late autumn to mid-winter. They have a dry, spicy flavour and go well with strong meat dishes, boar, duck and quail. The dried berries can be used as a pepper or juniper substitution.
Myrtle is also used in Sardinia and Corsica to produce Mirto by macerating it in alcohol. It is one of the most typical drinks of Sardinia and it could be red, mirto rosso or white, mirto bianco.
Jekka’s simple Myrtle salt
- 250g non- iodised salt
- 20 myrtle leaves
- Pestle and mortar
- Sterilised and sealable bottle or jar.
- Using a pestle and mortar, pound together the salt and the Myrtle leaves. The salt will pick up the flavour of the herb.
- Bottle the salt and crushed leaves, label and keep in a dark cupboard. It can be used immediately or stored, but it is best used within 3 months.
Want to know more? Check out more herb-based recipes online.
Myrtle and Luma have multiple medicinal uses, for instance, a leaf decoction may be applied externally only to treat bruises and haemorrhoids, the seeds produce an aromatic oil that has antibiotic properties and the oil from the berries is used externally to alleviate acne. It is also used medicinally to treat scalp and skin conditions due to high levels of salicylic acid. Therefore, they are very useful plants to have in your herb garden.
As with all alternative medicines and plants with purported medicinal benefits it is important to inform your doctor or health care provider that you are using them; this helps to ensure safe and coordinated care. We can accept no liability for any side effect or adverse reaction from any allergy or any other cause of harm that may arise. It is important that you consult a licensed medical expert before making any changes to your diet
Want to know more?
This blog builds on Jekka's previous Herbs of the month blogs: Bay (January), Rosemary (February), Salad Burnet (March), French Tarragon (April), Angelica (May), Alliums (June), Lavender (July), Basil (August), Mint (September), Szechuan Pepper (October), Thyme (November) and Curry Tree (December).
For advice on growing and maintaining herbs, check out Jekka's How to Grow Herbs videos and ‘Jekka’s Seasonal Tips’ blog series, which includes what to do in your herb garden in early spring, late spring, summer and autumn & winter. Together they form the basis of Jekka’s guide on how to grow herbs.
Herb plants are available and you can organise a collection from our herb farm in South Gloucestershire or at one of our Open Days or Herb Experiences (see our events calendar). Please see our 'Looking Good List' for availability and use our webform or email your list directly to us (firstname.lastname@example.org). We no longer offer a general mail order service for our plants but we do offer a limited selection of Jekka's Culinary Herb Boxes.