Myrtle is very common in Israel and in the rest of the Mediterranean as well, its hardiness and evergreen freshness making it a perfect choice for decorative hedges. It also has a significance in the Jewish faith, being one of the four species used in celebrating Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles).
It was only very recently, however, that we discovered that the myrtle berries – and leaves too – are actually edible. We are still experimenting with this, but in general the leaves may be added to soups and stews in a way similar to laurel leaves, imparting a subtle flavor and aroma (remove before eating), while the ripe berries can be likewise used in stews, sauces, meat, chicken, fish and even grain dishes. They have a fruity, slightly astringent flavor.
Myrtle berries are quite ripe when they are dark purple to black in color, which happens around here as late as November-December. Places where myrtle hedges are used for decorative purposes are good locations for picking; I can’t imagine anyone would object. Myrtle would be a good choice for planting on one’s property as well. It’s a hardy shrub which always looks fresh and smells delightful.
Besides flavoring various dishes, I have read that myrtle berries can be made into jam or steeped in alcohol to make a drink traditionally produced in Sardinia. We haven’t tried this yet but might experiment in the future. Myrtle also has some unique health properties, in particular for treatment of respiratory conditions and skin health. Here is a simple recipe for making myrtle oil at home. If I try this out, I will let you know.