The inconspicuous sweet gale

Happy in sun or shade, this shrub grows well in damp spots and its sweet-spicy leaves are surprisingly useful.

Credit: Richard Hebda

The inconspicuous but not uncommon sweet gale deserves more appreciation

Many plants native to British Columbia range far outside our province, where they have a long history of use and lore. Some, such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium), are familiar to many of us. Others are little known. The inconspicuous but not uncommon sweet gale (Myrica gale), widely known and used in Europe, is one of the plants in the second category that deserves to be much better appreciated.

A low to medium shrub, sweet gale grows to 1.5 m (5 ft.) on slender reddish stems. The erect branches spread into a pleasantly airy form. Sweet gale rarely occurs as a single plant, more usually forming dense thickets from numerous suckers.

The soft green deciduous leaves are particularly attractive, especially in the spring. They are broadly lance-shaped but not pointed, often wider in the upper half and 2-6 cm (3⁄4-2.5 in.) long. Coarse teeth line the margin of the upper third of the leaf, and upper and lower leaf surfaces are dotted with yellow wax glands. The leaves release a sweet-spicy scent when bruised or even brushed. You may not even recognize that you are in a patch of sweet gale until you smell the leaves. Sweet gale’s larger cousin, Myrica californica, has shiny evergreen leaves.

The brownish flower clusters are not showy in the traditional sense but make a pleasing display in spring as the new leaves emerge. They consist of masses of tiny male and female catkins borne on separate plants. When young, both types of catkins are bright waxy yellow, but later turn a medium brown. Female catkins mature into brown cone-like spikes housing tiny greenish nutlets that often persist through the winter.

Sweet gale thrives in acid soils along the margins of lakes and ponds and in peatlands and swamps. It is especially abundant along the coast of British Columbia but also occurs in scattered inland sites, especially in the north. Outside B.C. the range extends from Alaska to Oregon and in the north around the northern hemisphere, particularly in Europe.

You can grow sweet gale from fall-sown seeds, rooted suckers or branches layered in moist soil. It is best suited to damp spots in the garden, such as a wetland or the edge of a pond or slow stream. This shrub thrives in full sun but also grows in light shade at the edge of a stand of trees. Try to place it in your garden so that you can enjoy the bright green leaves and contrasting brown flower clusters in spring and crush the leaves to savour their spicy scent. VanDusen Garden in Vancouver has several delightful patches of sweet gale along the wet zone in the native plant area.

Sweet gale was little used by B.C. First Nations. In the boreal forest, a stem, leaf and catkin decoction was prepared to treat tuberculosis, and seed catkins gathered in fall were used in trap lures. In Europe, however, sweet gale was widely known and valued. The leaves were used to perfume linen. Catkins and cones boiled in water yielded a wax for making scented candles. Swedes prepared a strong decoction to kill insects and relieve itch. The bark can tan calfskin and dye wool yellow. In places such as Yorkshire, its branches were substituted for hops in beer making. Gale beer, as it is called, is acknowledged to be excellent in allaying thirst. Specialty brewing shops sell imported dried sweet gale, but it’s worth the adventure to find your own in the wild or grow it in your garden. Today the essential oil of sweet gale is also valued for aromatherapy.

With so many uses and a pleasant scent, it’s surprising that sweet gale is not more widely grown. Find a damp spot in your garden and try this delightful shrub. It may not make the most-showy list, but it will bring quiet enjoyment in the garden and provide new opportunities for the beer maker in your home.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated:
Achillea millefolium (yarrow) – zone 2
Myrica gale (sweet gale) – zone 2
Myrica californica (California wax-myrtle) – zone 7-8

An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.