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Gale (Myrica gale L.)


botanicalGale palustris
pharmaceuticalHerba Myrti Rabanitini
DanishPorse, Mose-pors
EnglishSweet gale, Candle berry, Bog myrtle
EstonianHarilik porss, Porss, Lutikarohi, Murdid, Soo kaerad, Rabaumalad
FrenchGalè odorant, Myrique, Myrique baumier, Piment royal, Myrte des marais; Bois-sent-born (Canada)
GermanGagel, Sumpfmyrte, Gagelstrauch
GreekΜυρτιά κολλώδης
Mirtia kollodis, Myrtia kollodis
HungarianFenyérmirtusz, Mirikacserje, Viaszbogyó
Hebrewמיריקה מיצנפתית
Mirika miznafit
LithuanianPajūrinis sotvaras
PolishWoskownica europejska
PortugueseSamouco-do-brabante; Alecrim-do-norte (Brazil)
RussianВосковница, Датский мирт
Voskovnitsa, Datski mirt
SlovakVoskovník obyčajný
SpanishMirto holandés, Mirto de Brabante
WelshHelygen Fair
Yiddishזומפּיקער װאַקס־הדס, װאַקס־הדס
Sumpiker vaks-hodes; Vaks-hodes (Myrica cerifera)
Myrica gale/pensylvanica/cerifera: Gale-leaves
Fresh gale leaves (from left to right M. gale, M. cerifera and M. pensylvanica)
Myrica pensylvanica/gale: Gale leaves
Dried leaves of M. gale (left) and M. pensylvanica (right)
Used plant part

Leaves, fresh or dried. Gale leaves are densely covered with oil glands; in the picture on the right side, the glands appear as a grainy surface texture, which is, however, an artefact pro­duced by the scanner. To the eye, gale leaves appear shining brown.

Besides those of M. gale, the larger leaves of M. ceri­fera and the North American M. pen­sylvani­ca can also be used as a spice, al­though I know nothing about tradi­tional uses.

Plant family

Myricaceae (gale family)

Sensory quality

Gale leaves have a nice, pleasant aromatic smell that increases when the leaves are dried. The taste is similar, but also somewhat bitter and astringent (see zedoary about bitter spices).

Myrica gale: Female gale flowers
Female gale flowers
Myrica gale: Male gale flowers
Male gale flowers

In my nose, M. gale has the purest fra­grance, whereas M. ceri­fera leaves have pun­gent, eucalypt-like over­tones. M. pen­sylvani­ca sur­prises with citrusy notes.

Main consti­tuents

The leaves contain an es­sen­tial oil rich in terpenes, but of varying com­position. Main com­ponents are α‑pinene, 1,8‑cineol, myrcene and limonene; further­more, β‑cadinene, 11‑selin­ene-4‑ol, β‑terpin­ene, p‑cymene, caryo­phyllene, 4,11‑selina­diene, β‑elemen­one, germ­acrone and others are re­ported.

Allegedly, gale also contains toxic flavonoid glyco­sides. Like most plants in the Hama­melididae subclass, gale is rich in bitter tannins.


Gale and its rela­tives are found in oligo­trophic wet­lands of North­ern Europe, Asia and North America. Gale used to be a com­mon plant, but due to habitat loss it is now en­dangered in many countries.

In the US, a closely related plant is Myrica pen­sylvanica (bay­berry).


Gale is an old name of unknown etymo­logy (Old English gagel). There are more names of the same source in the names of North Western Europe: German and Dutch Gagel and French galè.

An aromatic wax can be obtained from the fruits, thus the British name candle berry. This applies mostly to M. cerifera (the Latin species epithet has the same meaning: bringer of wax).

Myrica gale: Sweet gale shrub
Gale branch
Myrica pensylvanica: Pensylvanian gale flowers
Female flowers of Bayberry, M. pensylvanica
Myrica gale: Unripe gale fruits
Unripe gale fruits

The origin of the scientific genus name Myrica is Greek myrike [μυρίκη] tamarisk (e. g., Tamarix tetrandra), although I do not under­stand the deeper con­nection between the two aromatic shrubs. There might also be a relation to Greek myron [μύρον] balm (see also nutmeg).

Many popular names link gale to myrtle, often with ad­jectives re­ferring to its habitat or geo­graphical distri­bution. The first is exempli­fied by German Sumpf­myrte swamp-myrtle or English bog myrtle; examples for the latter are Russian datski mirt [датский мирт] Danish myrtle and the two Spanish names mirto holandés Dutch myrtle and mirto de Brabante which al­ludes to the province Brabant in Belgium. All these regions are known for oligo­trophic coastal plains, where gale thrives (or at least did so in the past).

A variation of this motive is found in a Portuguese name that likens gale to another aromatic Mediterranean shrub: alecrim-do-norte rosemary of the North (the latter name also denotes the unrelated chaste tree).

Norwegian pors and related names in other Scandinavian languages are difficult to explain; they seem to go back to a pre-Indo–European North European language. German has borrowed that name (Porst) to denote another aromatic plant typical for oligotrophic habitats, the so-called Wild Rosemary (Ledum palustre, family Ericaceae and thus not related to rosemary) which has also been used for beer-brewing in the past, despite its mild toxicity.

Selected Links

Gruit — Historic Beer of Choice in the Modern Age Oxford Bottled Beer Database Dictionary of Beer

Myrica gale: Flowerings gale shrubs
Gale (flowering)
Myrica gale: Gale
Gale (sterile plant)
Myrica gale: Gale plant
Gale plant with withered male flowers
Gale hardly plays any rôle in con­temporary cuisines, al­though recipes employing gale are some­times reported from Sweden, Britain and Northern France. In the past, the fragrant leaves offered flavour even to those who could not afford costly import spices — con­sequently, the peasants of Central and Northern Europe made some use of gale.

Like bay leaves, for which gale is often an inter­esting alternative, gale leaves should be used whole and steeped in soups and sauces, to be removed before serving: In that way, no bitter flavour can be imparted. I find gale a pleasant addition to boiled vegetable stews and legumes; it is less efficient for meat dishes.

Historically, the most important application of gale was, however, the flavouring of beer. Beer brewing is an ancient art in Central and Western Europe; hop (Humulus lupulus), however, had but a small place in medieval beer brewing. Instead, brewers used a large number of aromatic plants, of which gale was one of the most efficient and also most cheap. The multitude of beer varieties culminated in Early Renaissance Britain.

In these days, beer was fla­voured with a mixture of herbs and spices called gruit or grut, not only to alter the taste, but also to improve the dura­bility. Alcohol’s psycho­active effects were often sup­ported by quite toxic witch­craft herbs like henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), which contains alkaloids of the atropine group and is also a very powerful pre­servative. But these drastic addi­tives were abandoned at the end of the Middle Ages, when increasing hygienic standards made them largely un­neces­sary. Gale has only mild (if any) psycho­active properties, and is much less dangerous than henbane.

Myrica gale: Male gale flowers
Male gale flowers
Myrica gale: Unripe gale fruits
Unripe gale fruits

Brewers in the and century used a large variety of plant extracts for their gruit: Expensive Asian spices for those who could afford (ginger, cloves, galanga, cinnamon, nutmeg, and even Indian bay-leaves), cheaper imports (grains of paradise, coriander, licorice) and local herbs for less well-off customers (fennel, mint, juniper, rosemary and gale).

The main advantage of hop is its great power to preserve the beer for a long time; but wild hop has an disagreeable, bitter taste. As soon as new, less bitter hop cultivars were bred in the century (Abbot), they very quickly replaced the old herbs.

Special beers with spices in stead of (or in addition to) hop are hardly produced commer­cially today, as beer drinkers have been trained to associate beer with hop (cf. also the in­fluen­tial German purity law Reinheits­gebot from 1516); but home brewing enjoys increasing popularity, even outside the circle of Middle Age enthusiasts. Today’s home brewers often use orange peel (mostly of the Caribbean curação orange), vanilla and cardamom as alternatives to hop. These beverages, being brewed by fermenting malt with yeast, are true beers and must be clearly distinguished from sweetened herb extracts of the kind of root beer (see sassafras) or ginger ale (see ginger).

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