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The Royal Myrtle: behind the scenes at Osborne House

With just days to go until the Royal Wedding, we’re getting a feel for how Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will mix modern and traditional for their marriage at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor on May 19th. And there are plenty of royal traditions for them to think about incorporating into their big day. One of the most famous is the inclusion of myrtle in the bride’s bouquet – with many royal women choosing to add cuttings taken from a bush planted by Queen Victoria at Osborne House.

The famous royal residence is now in the care of English Heritage and Royal Central has been speaking to the curator at Osborne House, Michael Hunter, about this celebrated regal plant. Michael explained that the myrtle made its way into the Royal Family at about the same time that Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, bought and began redeveloping Osborne House in the late 1840s.

”The myrtle plants that grow up the wall of what is now our terrace restaurant were grown on from sprigs brought back by Victoria from Coburg, Germany, in the 1840s. Then, in 1858, there was another plant grown on from a sprig of myrtle taken from Victoria’s daughter’s (confusingly also called Victoria!) wedding bouquet. Then there was another grown on from that one … so it was quite a population of myrtles that sprang up at Osborne every time a member of the family got married. First Victoria and Albert’s children, grandchildren and then great grandchildren!

Myrtle was traditionally used by German brides to signify their innocence. Although Victoria was already a married woman by the time she brought myrtle to Osborne House, Michael Hunter describes how she and Prince Albert established the plant at their Isle of Wight retreat.

Knowing Prince Albert’s passion for gardening I think he would have taken a keen interest in the wellbeing and care of the myrtle at Osborne. On 17 September, 1846 Victoria wrote in her journal, “…Albert supervised the transplanting of all the … myrtles … which is a tremendous job; one myrtle required 15 men to move it!”

Myrtle had been cultivated in Britain since the 16th century but the plants at Osborne are all directly related to the sprigs used by Victoria and her family. Following Albert’s death, Victoria took great comfort in them. On February 18th 1878, their eldest granddaughter, Princess Charlotte of Prussia, got married in Berlin. Victoria was at Osborne House and, as Michael Hunter explains, paid her own tribute using the myrtle that had meant so much to her and Albert.

”On Charlotte’s wedding day, Victoria planted a myrtle bush at Osborne that had been propagated from a sprig taken from another bush. This bush had been grown twenty years previously from a sprig taken from her daughter, Vicky’s wedding bouquet. Victoria wrote in her journal on 18 February 1878, “Walked … to the Swiss Cottage & planted a myrtle bush in honour of the day … grown from a sprig of myrtle in Vicky’s wedding bouquet, 20 years ago, of which I have sent a piece for Charlotte’s wedding nosegay.” 

Visitors to Osborne House can now see the myrtle that has played such a big part in royal wedding traditions. The bushes that grow on the Lower Terrace have been accessible to everyone making the trip there since last summer. Depending on the time of year, the bushes may even be in flower. Myrtle blooms in July and August, producing small white flowers followed by purple coloured berries. Because royal weddings rarely fall in the height of summer, most regal brides have had to add foliage to their bouquets rather than the actual myrtle flowers themselves.

Not every royal bride has used myrtle from Osborne (Camilla used foliage from Cornwall in her bouquet instead) but it has featured in some of the best known posies seen at weddings, including those carried by the Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge.

If Meghan does decide to follow this royal tradition, there is plenty of myrtle to choose from at Osborne for not only does it grow on the Lower Terrace, it is also cultivated at the children’s garden at the Swiss Cottage and on roads and paths around the estate.

In the language of flowers, so beloved of Queen Victoria, myrtle symbolises good luck and love in marriage. But it’s clear, too, that the plants signified a lot more to Queen Victoria and her family. The continued use of myrtle in royal wedding bouquets is a poignant tribute to that as well as a nod to a tradition now famous around the world.

Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, is open to the public from April until November with access to the house and grounds. From November 1st until the end of March, only the ground floor and gardens are open to visitors.

Photo credits: English Heritage

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