Musings of a wild bog myrtle picker
Although bog myrtle has been known for centuries in Scotland as an insect repellent,
curiously I observed that where bog myrtle is to be found - so is the midge.
Also in abundance are clegs (horseflies) and other less harmful but still pestilential
I think this is because of the wetness of the peaty, acid soil, and the abundance of
reeds and grass amongst the heather, and amounts of rotting vegetation which attract
all sorts of insects. This is contrary to popular and apparently informed opinion which
thinks that midges are not to be found, or are less frequent, where bog myrtle grows.
I did find that the repellent I used (our own Stop Bite as above) does work there,
fortunately, against the midge, and also kept away the flies and clegs which were as
much of a nuisance as the infernal midgies.
This is likely because the leaves and fruit of the bog myrtle are better crushed or processed
as in the repellent spray, but on the other hand,
traditionally in times long past and even nowadays,
shepherds and walkers in Scotland put a sprig of (uncrushed) bog myrtle
behind the ear or in the hat, and found this to keep the midge away.
When the midgies were really thick and hungry, I really needed our
midge head net as well,
to be totally safe.
Another observation is that minor wounds such as from careless use of cutters,
very soon turned a healthy pink, and healed within two or three days,
where you'd normally expect them to take over a week. There is indeed amongst the
large amount of our reading and research so far, some little evidence of bog myrtle's
healing, anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties,
but seemingly little of that exists in today's world.
This is very Interesting!
Bog myrtle does, to most people and at most times, smell very pleasant, and for those
used to walking alongside patches of bog myrtle, the mention of it brings back memories
of walks in the sunshine, through Scotland's
glorious countryside. Sweet Gale, as it's commonly known, indeed.
At other times, however, the smell can be of stale feet,
though perhaps this is more to do with treading through peat bogs and bracken, than
to the herb itself. A natural predator of bog myrtle is the sheep and the deer;
the young tender shoots presumably are a welcome change from their normal diet.
Another enemy of bog myrtle is of course crop cultivation and drainage; it requires
wet soil and has shallow roots, and is easily pulled or dragged out of the ground,
and drainage is just not good for it.
Bog myrtle is to be found all over Scotland, where there is still wild country,
especially the islands. It's also in the Lake District
(though little known there, unlike Scotland) as found by David Bellamy
in conservation aware caravan parks, and will exist in North Wales, Northern Ireland
and in parts of the Irish Republic. I don't know whether it's to be found outside of these
countries, yet. It can be seen in Forestry land, where the sheep are not allowed to graze,
and should it become a rarer sight as land becomes more and more humanised, perhaps
the Forestry Commission could keep an eye on it with a view to preserving it for us.
It's a bushy shrub, which can grow up to 6 feet tall, though more commonly you'd
find it about three feet (1 metre) tall. It often trails through the grass,
and is often choked with grass and ferns, though whether this leads to suppression of
the bog myrtle, or is just a natural annual late season event, I don't know yet.
Bog myrtle likes to be near running water, from where it derives much of its
It starts growing after the last frost, and dies off around the time of the first frost,
becoming virtually unrecognisable expect as a twiggy brown shrub, much like other shrubs.
It can spread through its waxy fruits which it sheds all around it in Autumn,
and these can carry some way. Like us, it has two sexes!
Sweet gale was well known to the Vikings, who used to drink a brew before going into
battle with their customary berserk frenzy.
Though they believed it was the brew gave them extra strength and the battle madness,
it's rather more likely it was certain other substances they took that caused this
happy and reckless mental state. The small leaves were often used in olden times in
Scottish cooking, and you can still find high class restaurants that prepare fish
and chicken dishes when it's young and in season, though its culinary uses are now
generally quite rare. There are breweries that use it to make a sweet heather ale,
and some home or small brewers do the same according to their own handed down recipe,
though unless they have bog myrtle growing nearby they find it difficult to buy.
It's got a very pleasant and very different taste to regular ales, even real ales,
and if you're lucky, you'll find a heather ale even on your supermarket shelves,
as well as on tap in a surprising number of pubs in Scotland.
It's a grossly underated herb, alongside possibly the horsetail which is a nightmare
if it gets into your garden, especially the vegetable garden. Horsetail was well known
in Roman times, for its uses for kidney infections and problems, and against it seems,
osteoporosis. I've found no evidence so far that bog myrtle (as opposed to myrtle)
was known to the Romans at all; perhaps they were distracted in their friendly
information gathering excursions into neighbouring barbarian lands,
by their quite unusual behaviour in stopping to build the odd wall or two,
thus depriving themselves of the pleasure of peacefully touring Scotland with our
beautiful scenery in the Lowlands, as well as the Highlands and Islands,
and sharing a heather ale or two and a wee peaty goldie, with our friendly natives.
Maybe over the next few years we may see more use made of bog myrtle and horsetail,
and other ubiquitous plants which seem to serve little purpose in these enlightened times,
but to be pleasant to the walker's eye and sometimes nose. Oh, and to act as a very
effective insect repellent!
Possibly in time these minor ramblings will turn into some form of coherent information
source about bog myrtle, meanwhile that's all you get ...
Some interesting links to gather here:
BCTV - Practical Conservation Online
Plants For A Future
Wikipedia.org - Myrica Gale
To contact me about bog myrtle, please follow the link below
and click on the "Contact" link at the top right of the page.
Totally Herby of Scotland are founder members of the
Scottish Wild Harvests Association.