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Myrica gale

Bog-Myrtle Family [Myricaceae]  

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28th Sept 2008, Troutal Tongue, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
A short shrub less than a metre high inhabiting wettish upland areas in acidic peaty soils.

28th Sept 2008, Troutal Tongue, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
When crushed both the leaves and the flowers smell of the most delightful resinous aroma imaginable.

1st July, Wallabarrow Crag, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
Leaves are oval, narrow and greyish-green.

1st July, Wallabarrow Crag, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
Leaves mostly populate the upper branches of the plant, many have rounded ends, a few slightly pointed.

28th Sept 2008, Troutal Tongue, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
The stems are reddish brown and woody. Leaves have faint veins.

28th July 2006, place unknown. Photo: © Bastiaan Brak
 The leaves here have a few more teeth and are also more matte. This is a female plant and these are the female fruits; the female flowers are yet to be photographed...

28th Sept 2008, Troutal Tongue, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
 Male and female flowers are on separate plants. Male flowers are ovoid, upright and orange (shown here) [female flowers are scarlet-red and plume-like].

28th Sept 2008, Troutal Tongue, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
 The male flowers are orange, here as un-opened catkins.

Unusually for dioecious plants, there are many more male plants in any one population than there are female plants, but there must be some, somewhere, in the Lake District.

18th April 2010, nr. Stanley Force, Eskdale, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
 In spring, when the plant is devoid of leaves, the male catkins open.

20th April 2012, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
 The male flower parts start off pale cream. They are yellowish within and orangy-red on the outside. Un-opened male catkin at the bottom.

20th April 2012, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
 The pale-yellow pollen grains of the male flowers are scattered all about.

18th April 2010, nr. Stanley Force, Eskdale, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
 The catkins have hairy scales. The seeds turn from cream coloured to purplish-brown.

18th April 2010, nr. Stanley Force, Eskdale, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
 The scales are semi-translucent in places.

20th April 2012, Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
The woody skeleton before many more leaves arrive.

Uniquely identifiable characteristics : rub the leaves and smell the wonderful aroma. No other plant produces a smell quite like this one does. Describing a small is fairly difficult, but you'll know you've seen bog myrtle when you smell this.

Distinguishing Feature : The short knobbly woody stem and the dark-green lanceolate leaves. Your feet will likely be very wet too, for you will be standing in a bog!

Lookee-Likees : At first glance, Bog-myrtle could be mistaken for a small Rhododendron or Laurel bush.

No relation to : Chilean Myrtle (Luma Apiculata).

An entrancing sweet-smelling resin comes in evidence when the leaves are crushed between the fingers. A large straggle of Bog Myrtle in the sodden hills can be smelled from over half a mile away from Dock Tarn, above Buttermere, which has a large colony of Bog Myrtle. It is wind-pollinated, the pollen being allergenic.

Bog Myrtle has quite a reputation for its ability to repel midges and fleas by its very strong aroma, and has been used many times in the past and even recent past for such duty, due to the odorous resin it contains. A midge repellent called 'Myrica' made by steam distilling the volatile oil from Bog Myrtle was sold by a Scottish company in the Isle of Skye. It was found to be very effective on Scottish midges (Culicoides impunctatus).

But it has an even bigger reputation as a substitute for hops in brewed alcoholic beverages. If ever your author were to brew a beer made from Sweet Gale, he would name the beer Regale! There is a Scottish brewery, Fraoch, that is brewing a Heather Ale using Heather and Bog Myrtle from the extensive crops on Scottish bogs. It is reportedly an abortifacient, so pregnant women should avoid drinks and condiments containing Bog Myrtle.

The flowers are borne in catkins, the male are orange and angled upwards, the female are red and drooping; it is (usually) dioecious with male and female flowers on separate plants, but occasionally monoecious with both male and female flowers (catkins) on the same plant. Individual plants are also known to have changed sex from year to year. There are only photos of the male sex here, I need photos of the female plants with flowers.

A yellow dye which was formerly used in tanning can be extracted from Bog Myrtle.

It was a traditional medicine with uses against parasites and to treat skin disorders and gonorrhea - also used as a diuretic.

It is now thought to be related to Bayberry Myrica pensylvanica (formerly known as Morella caroliniensis) which has naturalised on wet heathland in North and South Hants. A fragrant wax can be obtained from the fruits of Bayberry (aka Candle Berry) which burns emanating a fragrance. This is an introduced and naturalised plant planted for ground cover for birds which is naturalised on wet heathland in Hampshire (both North and South).

Nitrogen Fixation
Bog-myrtle grows only in wettish peaty soils typical of upland acidic bogs where nitrogen levels are low; but it has nitrogen-fixing Frankia-genus actinobacteria within its root system and is thus able to fix atmospheric nitrogen from the air which allows it to flourish in this nitrogen-poor environment. Bog Myrtle is one of the few plants capable of this feat apart from the well-known ability of certain members of the Pea Family (Fabaceae) which can also accomplish this task, and Water Fern, of course.

Arran Brown
Large Heath


Both leaves and fruits are covered in glands which secrete a resinous and fragrant substance.

Myrtenol is the resinous substance in Bog-Myrtle responsible for its pleasant aroma and its insect repellent and beverage flavouring properties. As can be seen it is chemically related to Verbenol, another terpene which is found in some species of Verbena plants (Vervain), and in turpentine, a solvent for good paints. Both have the configuration, if not the structure, of cubane. α-Pinene is also present as an aroma compound, being Verbenol without the extra -OH group.

Bog Myrtle also contains Eucalyptol (aka 1,8-Cineole), which contributes to the resinous smell. Eucalyptol, obtained as an essential oil from Eucalyptus Trees, is also used in cough medicine and throat lozenges for its refreshing and cool sensations and some cigarettes which in the 1960's were claimed to be 'as cool as a mountain stream', but doses are small for it is toxic in higher concentrations. It is used to treat nasal obstruction and asthma.

The essential oil also contains several other MonoTerpenes and Sesquiterpenes as major components: α-Pinene, Germacrene-B, β-Cadinene, γ-Cadinene, Caryophyllene, Myrcene, Limonene, β-Terpinene, p-Cymene, 4,11-Selinadione, 11-Selinene-4-ol, β-Elemenone and 1,8-Cineol. The Germacrenes, of which versions A to E are known, are insecticidal sesquiterpenes produced by a number of plants, some also playing a role as insect pheromones; the most ubiquitous are Germecrene A and Germacrene D; Germacrene B is not common. Bog Myrtle also contains the lactone sesquiterpenoid Germacrone.

β-Elemenone is found in Bog Myrtle (as well as Alexanders, also in herbs and spices) but apparently despite its pleasant aroma is not for use in fragrances. It acts as an effective larvicide against several insects.


Myricetin, a flavonol flavonoid similar to Quercetin, is also found not only in Bog Myrtle but also in grapes, berries, fruits, herbs and vegetables. It exhibits anti-septic properties, and it was found it can also lower the incidence of prostrate cancer. Being a flavonol Myricetin has a deep-yellow coloration unlike the usual paler yellow colour of Flavones. The three commonest plant flavonols are Kaempferol, Quecetin amd Myricetin.

  Myrica gale  ⇐ Global Aspect ⇒ Myricaceae  

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Myrica gale

Bog-Myrtle Family [Myricaceae]  

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