Our blog editor, Jane Petrie, writes about one of our special bog plants:
Like so many of our wonderful bog plants, myrtle, also known as ‘Sweet Gale’ has properties which meant it was valued and used by our distant ancestors for all sorts of purposes from medicine and candle making to brewing and more. As is so often the case, as our close links to these plants and our connections to the environment they grow in have dwindled, we have largely lost the knowledge of the uses plants like this were put to.*
Bog myrtle is a small flowering shrub which grows up to 2m tall. It’s found in bogs (such as Flanders and Blawhorn NNRs) marshes, fens and wetlands. Bog myrtle is a plant which features adaptations to suit its wet and acidic growing environment – for example, it thrives in nitrogen poor soil due to antinobacteria found in the roots that can bind nitrogen from the air.
But bog myrtle is perhaps best known for the evocative and unique scent of its leaves which are reputed to offer protection from the ferocious ravages of the Scottish midge. Sprigs of myrtle were often tucked into hat bands and even horses’ bridles to ward off midges and flies and in recent years some research has gone into marketing insect repellants with myrtle in, though the effectiveness of anything other than a head net or midge suit against swarms of midges in warm summer evenings is open to debate!
Myrtle leaves contain essential oils rich in terpenes and bitter tannins. The leaves were once added to beer, known as gruit, to increase its flavor and foaminess though it has mostly been replaced by hops now, partly due to myrtle’s reputation for causing severe headaches. Myrtle beer (gruit) was known as ‘porsøl’ in Scandinavian countries and reputedly drunk in large quantities by Viking ‘berserkers’ to drive themselves into a fighting frenzy. Myrtle is still added to some brands of schnapps and liquers today. In more modest quantities the leaves can also be added to stews and roast meats or made into tea – but it’s always worth proceeding with caution before trying this out*.
Its flowers are catkins and it also produces small fruits known as ‘drupes’. When boiled, the natural wax coating from these fruits floats to the surface of the water and can be skimmed off to make candles which burn with a pleasant fragrance. More wax can be obtained from the stone in the fruits by the same method.
How to describe the scent? Well, everyone picks up something different in Myrtle’s unique aroma. From the first fragrance impressions from the leaves to crushing the leaves between your fingers and feeling the oil on your skin, the scent evolves. It’s a complex scent which could accurately be described as smelling like nothing but itself but if you haven’t met the plant to find out for yourself, the following descriptions have been offered by staff here in the office – citrusy, warming, peppery, resinous, a bit like rosemary, sweet, soft – and sharp, oily, medicinal, woody, heathery…. From the first ‘hit’ of scent to the longer lasting ‘flavour’ one of the team likened the scent to ‘a good bottle of wine, but with no headache’, to describe the unique and multi layered aroma which evolves.Myrtle was also traditionally used medicinally, to treat wounds, acne and digestive problems. In Scandinavia the plant’s dried bark was used to treat intestinal worms and relieve itching. The plan has astringent and antiseptic properties (and actually helped preserve the beer made from it) and was used in wound dressings. It’s also styptic which means it stops bleeding and its other properties encourage healing. Myrtle’s ‘euphoric’ properties meant it was also used historically to treat depression and stress. In dyeing, myrtle produces a yellow colour, also used in tanning leather. Bog myrtle in Gaelic is known as roid and was the clan badge of some septs of the Campbells. (To hear how to pronounce roid explore SNH’s glossary of Gaelic nature words
Last but not least, myrtle is a traditional element in bridal bouquets, not just in Scotland but also in European and British royal weddings. In the ‘language of flowers’ myrtle represents love, purity and long life and the flower is the Hebrew symbol of marriage. Queen Victoria planted a myrtle bush at Osborne House, and plants there continue to provide sprigs for royal brides to carry on the tradition of including myrtle in their bouquet – as seen most recently at the wedding of Meghan and Prince Harry.
So, from this one plant, people could garner a whole host of useful properties – and the only way to experience it is by smelling the plant for yourself!
This is just one of the wonderful species found in our brilliant bogs – there are many, many more to explore!
*(As well as being less knowledgeable about the benefits of these plants in this day and age, we’re all generally less knowledgeable about the side effects and potential hazards too, so always exercise caution when foraging, especially if you plan to eat or drink anything made from wild plants, especially as the side effects can be pretty powerful, even toxic. In a similar vein, myrtle also has abortifacient properties so should never be ingested by pregnant women. The highly fragrant essential oil from the seeds is highly toxic and should never be ingested; it can also cause skin irritation).