By now their full flowering is over, but this morning I found one last little periwinkle on my myrtle (Vinca minor, Myrtus communis).

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Also called creeping myrtle or running myrtle, it makes a marvelous ground cover and is even semi-xeric, requiring little water once it’s established. Left unchecked, it will happily take over every inch of garden space. Vinca major has a similar flower, known as “greater periwinkle,” referring to no other superiority than size. The leaves are larger, too, a little rounder, and, according to some, handsomer. I admire both kinds of vincas and mix them up. They don’t seem to mind.

Maybe they’re so congenial because periwinkle is a “love flower” and is the original “blue” in the ancient rhyme about the gear a bride needs for her wedding: “Something old, something new,/Something borrowed, something blue.” It was worn in the garter for fertility and young married couples in Britain commonly planted patches of periwinkle in the gardens of their first homes to ensure happy lives.

from Atlas des Plantes de France

from Atlas des Plantes de France

Popular works of the 16th and 17th centuries mention periwinkle as a promoter of conjugal love. The English herbalist Nicolas Culpeper wrote in 1652 that the periwinkle was “owned by Venus” and that “the leaves eaten by man and wife together causeth love between them.”

In some places, the leaves of the greater periwinkle were applied to chapped hands. An old German herbalist and healer I knew named Hannah Kroeger told me that periwinkle would prevent cancer, ingested as a tea or in a tincture. Perhaps that’s why, in the Middle Ages, some believed that periwinkle was endowed with mysterious powers against “wicked spirits,” for what better description is there of cancer? Hang the plant over your front door and witches will not enter. It works against toothaches, fevers that come with a cold, snakes, poisons and — my favorite — spite. Its power against “wicked spirits” is strongest if the plant is blessed with other herbs on Our Lady’s Day (January 1st).

In ancient Rome, myrtle was used in purification rites, especially during the worship of Venus, Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart.

Aphrodite with myrtle wreaths

Aphrodite with myrtle wreaths

In his extraordinary book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso tells how Dionysus descended to the underworld to ransom his mother, Semele.

Dionysus “found himself face to face with Hades, as though looking in a mirror. The eyes staring at him were his own. Hades told him he would let Semele go, but only on condition that Dionysus gave up something very dear to him. Dionysus thought. Then he offered a twig of myrtle to the lord of the invisible. Hades accepted. How was it that such a humble plant could settle such a portentous deal? Myrtle was the plant young spouses were crowned with on earth. And Hades couldn’t get enough of spouses and their nuptials. He wanted the kingdom of the dead to be mingled with the realm of eros. … The myrtle was Aphrodite’s plant before it was Dionysus’s, and until this visit to the underworld, it had been just the casual, fleeting fragrance of lovemaking. But from now on it would spread the fragrance of another world as well, the unknown. Thus the myrtle became the plant of both eros and mourning.”

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Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Tim Parks, trans. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

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