‘Myrtle is an upright bush when young, but arches with age.’ Photograph: Neil Holmes/Getty
I think I’ve found paradise, or at least my version of it. It’s an island big enough to explore, small enough to one day truly know. It has its own drying bean, heady local wine and a town called “Good bread”, where they sell just that. The whole island may one day blow up and disappear into the sea, which makes it all the more enticing.
I write this as far from the green hills and aquamarine seas of Ischia as a damp English autumn day can get you. I can’t run away to it, but I can steal a little of it for home instead.
Much of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, is covered in myrtle, Myrtus communis. It grows from rocks and dry, thin soil, sprouting where it pleases and scenting the air with aromatic resins. Myrtle is native to the Mediterranean, but has been grown in England since the 16th century. It came in with some early orange trees and, because of its sun-loving genes, it needs the same sort of care. Myrtle was mostly grown in pots or tubs, brought out for the summer, then taken in for the winter to shelter from very wet weather.
Growing it in a pot is as good a trick today as it was then. Though it’s possible to grow it into a handsome bush in the south of England, farther north it’s going to need some winter protection. To grow it in the ground, tuck it up against a sheltered wall and offer some fleece if necessary. You can underplant it with species tulips, muscari and cyclamen; or, if you’re consigning it to a herb garden, lavenders, rosemary and savory.
It’s an upright bush when young, but will arch with age. It will also produce beautiful, pure white flowers and dark purple berries once mature, but only if summer has been long and hot. If you want to make that classic myrtle drink, mirto, from the berries, you may be waiting some time.
The aromatic, spicy leaves can also be used to stuff meats, and are great in marinades and soups; treat them much as you would bay.
If in a pot, feed myrtle throughout the growing season with something rich in potash to ensure flowering, and give it room to grow into: it can grow up to 2.5m tall and that wide again, so needs a pot at least 30cm wide, bigger if you expect fruit to form. It’s an excellent choice for a courtyard or city garden, because it offers structure, glossy, evergreen leaves and it can be clipped (though you sacrifice flowers that way). Brush against it on a hot day, and it will smell delicious.