HERBS - HERBAL MEDICINE & EDIBLE PLANTS

 

Crete produces a wide range of wild aromatic herbs and wild edible greens, both have played an important role in all times, good and hard, for the Cretan people preventing the islanders on many occasions from starvation. Its high mountains and fertile valleys are richly endowed with plants. Close to its dramatic sea shores thrive many sweet scented will herbs.

  

Most middle aged Cretans will remember working in the fields in their childhood with family members, eating lot of fruit, shoots, raw roots and leaves. Theses greens known as 'horta' vary in flavour during the year. Today from autumn until early spring, it is still a popular pastime, to go out into the countryside and gather 'horta'. Many of the older women can identify all the different kinds of wild greens and take pleasure in choosing which to collect, however I suggest for the novice to buy them from the markets. From October when the first few drops of rain appear you will find wild 'radikia' chicory. This will last until June when the last shoots of many edible plants will wither and die up until then they were eaten as an every day dish of the Cretans diet. For the rest of the year wild edible fruits of trees and shrubs which are ripened by the summer sun were consumed.

   

Although two and a half thousand years separate us from ancient times, there is still today a link with some of the herbs, plants and trees. Since the Minoan era 'horta' has been widely consumed however, no matter how they are cooked either by steam or fried they need a lot of olive oil to be tasty and consumed with any amount of pleasure! and as everyone on the island practically produced his and her own olive oil consumed considerable quantities of edible plants compared to other northern regions of Greece.

   

In parts of the island today, some of the trusted herbal remedies that have been passed down through that centuries continue to be used.  With a rich tradition of using flowers, leaves and herbs in local customs and religious celebrations.

 

HERBS

 

OREGANO - 'RIGANI'

    

 This herb's name derives from two ancient Greek words, 'oros' mountain 'ganos' delight. It certainly is a delightful sight to see this herb in full bloom on the hillsides in the summer months. In Greece Oregano has always been used for culinary purposes. Traditionally, you should always find it on the famous Greek village salad 'horiatiki salata. It has powerful germicidal properties and anti-oxidant action. In Crete 'dakos' is the famous local dish that uses a generous sprinkling of oregano used by shepherds and farmers as a simple meal made from local produce, when shared with wine, can be as enjoyable as any feast.
 

In ancient Greece warm poultices were made from the leaves and used for painful swellings. Oregano was also a remedy for toothache, digestive upsets and respiratory problems. Today it is still considered helpful and used against intense coughs and it can soothe the respiratory system. It also acts against toothaches and colic.

 

BASIL - 'VASILIKO'

 
Introduced to Europe by Alexander the Great. Hippocrates regarded basil as beneficial to the heart and prescribed it for treatment of constipation and as an anti-emetic (to prevent vomiting). Pliny suggested vinegar scented with basil would help prevent fainting. Dioscurides believed basil to be soothing for the stomach and abdomen, and useful as a diuretic and an aid in breast feeding. It is grown and admired for the beauty of its shapes and colours, for its fragrance, and religious significance. Many Greeks bring basil plants as gifts to the church or to have their basil plants blessed by the priest, a blessing for the health and prosperity of their home.

 
It wasn't until recent years when Italian recipes gained popularity in Greece (pesto sauce) that basil was used regularly in cooking. Said to soothe migraines of a nervous nature. It acts against the cold, headaches and a tonic for the peptic system, it has a pleasant scent and taste.

 

MARJORAM - 'MANTZOURANA'

 


Ancient Greeks planted marjoram on the graves of their beloved in the belief that by doing so the deceased would enjoy eternal peace and happiness. Hippocrates ascribed several medical uses to marjoram. Marjoram was one of the herbs and spices used by the ancient Egyptians in the embalming process. Ancient Greeks and Romans made head wreaths of marjoram for wedding couples as a symbol of love, honour, and happiness.

  
Medicinally, marjoram is used as a steam inhalant to clear the sinuses and relieve laryngitis. Marjoram tea sweetened with honey helps preserve the voice of professional singers.
It has antibacterial and anticonvulsant properties and it helps against headaches and neuralgias. Its ethereal oil is used in distillery and perfumery. As a condiment it is used just like oregano and thyme. Used in soups, salads and meat dishes.

  
THYME - 'THYMARI'

    

The name of this strongly aromatic herb originates from the Greek word 'thymio' to burn incense. Thyme is native to the Mediterranean, and historical records attribute, in part, the naming of the thyme plant to Theophrastus, 3rd century B.C. Greek philosopher and naturalist. Ancient Greeks believed thyme and its extracts could restore vigour and mental acuity. They burned it as a religious incense to give them courage. It was an ingredient in ritual altar fires, to purify the sacrifices to the gods. 

 
Thyme was burned as an incense at funerals and placed in the coffin of the dead in the belief that the soul of the deceased took up residence in the flowers of the thyme plant, and that thyme assured the passage of the deceased into the afterlife. On Crete grows one of the basic species of thyme. It has aromatic and medicinal properties and is considered to be an excellent plant for bees to feed on. It has powerful antiseptic properties used to soothe sore throats, colds, respiratory problems and stomach aches. It is contained in ointments and toothpastes for its aroma and antibacterial properties. It also helps against gastritis, indigestion and diarrhoea. In cooking it is used just like oregano and gives a pleasant scent to olive oil and is an excellent condiment for salads, meats, fish. 

   

ROSEMARY - 'THENDROLIVANO'

  

This attractive evergreen herb with a strong refreshing fragrance, is surrounded by tradition and legend. Its Greek name 'thendrolivanon' means incense tree. Rosemary was often used as incense in religious ceremonies, and statures of the gods were garlanded with it.  Rosemary was said to be a gift to mankind from Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. Since ancient times if has been used as a culinary and medicinal herb. Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean region and is widely cultivated in dry soils for its aromatic leaves, used for seasoning. 

   

It yields a volatile oil used in medicine as a stimulant and as a constituent of liniments, it is also used in perfumes. Scholars used to twine a rosemary sprig in their hair while they were studying because it was believed to strengthen the memory. The therapeutic properties of rosemary oil are analgesic, antidepressant, astringent, digestive, diuretic, stimulant and tonic, it can also eliminate oral sores with gargles and soothe haemorrhoids. Externally it is used against rheumatisms, strains, ruptures, bruises and eczemas. In combination with other herbs it can help against dandruff and works as a stimulant of hair growth. It is also used against gout, coughs, asthma and nervous palpitation.

  

LAUREL - BAY - 'DAPHNI'

  

It has been cultivated as a shrub and tree since the time of Homer, the ancient Greek writer and philosopher. Homer's "Odyssey" mentions bay laurel as an herb and medicine used by Ulysses. This aromatic plant known since ancient times as a symbol of respect, fame and victory. Its glossy dark leaves were used for the crowns and wreaths of heroes and poets.  Greek mythology also gave the herb its Greek name. Daphne, a beautiful nymph and daughter of the river god Peneios (Lathonas) and earth goddess Ge, was transformed by her parents into a bay laurel tree in order to retain her virginity and to escape Apollo's lustful pursuit. Hence, bay laurel is associated with purity and acts of purification.

 
Oil of the bay is used for strains and bruises and in perfumery. The brew of its leaves acts as an insect repellent from stored figs, plums and raisins. It is used  in many dishes such as 'stifado' , lentils, cuttlefish, etc.In modern medicine it is used in the form of ointment against rheumatisms. It  stimulates digestion and helps against asthma. helps eliminate head lice and stimulates hair growth.

 

SAGE - 'FASKOMILO'

  

Known to the entire Mediterranean since the ancient times, it is the main herb drunk in tisane (herbal tea) by the residents of eastern Crete. The leaves are collected in summertime. It soothes sore throats, gingivitis, headaches, migraines, diarrhoea, and helps hair growth. It also soothes the respiratory system in cases of common cold and stimulates the immune system of the body. Recent studies showed that it stimulates memory and helps alertness because it contains substances that affect the brain functions
 

 

The botanical name of the plant is indicative of its medicinal value: the word 'salvia' of its name derives from the Latin verb 'salvare' which means 'to heal'. A medieval proverb says: why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?. Also the Chinese were happy to exchange three times the quantity of their best brand of tea only to be able to acquire salvia officinalis. 

 

DITTANY - 'DICTAMUS'

 

Crete dittany resembles marjoram. It is a plant that grows only on Crete. It is known for its medicinal properties since the ancient times. It was considered to be the panacea for all diseases of the peptic system, for arthritis and for all diseases of the spleen. Hippocrates mentions that it helped women give birth easier. It is mentioned by 24 authors of antiquity and by 115 modern authors for its medicinal value. Today 'Dictamus' is used to heal internal ulcers of the stomach and the bowels, against neuralgias, headaches and sore throats. 
 

 

It has powerful antibacterial effects. The main elements of the ethereal oil of Dictamus is carvacrole. It also contains thymole and other secondary substances in smaller quantities. These substances have disinfecting and anticonvulsant properties. 

  

MINT - 'MENTA'

 

 
Mint takes its name from Greek mythology.  Hades, ruler of the Underworld, fell in love with the nymph Menthe. Persephone, Hades's wife, became wildly jealous and began to trample Menthe. Hades rushed forward and transformed Menthe into a shrub to keep her near him always. Persephone was appeased, thinking that Menthe would be trampled for eternity beneath the feet of passers by, but Hades gave Menthe a wonderfully sweet fragrance he could cherish each time he passed by. 
 

In classical times people believed mint to be strengthening and refreshing. It was added to the water they bathed in the valued for its cool, sweet fragrance. Crowns were made of mint and worn at feasts. It was also used for culinary purposes and for decoration. Mint, known since the ancient times when Dioskouridis recommended it for strong headaches. Its main constituent is menthol. It lowers cholesterol very quickly. It has antiseptic properties and in combination with aniseed it acts against colic, cramps and fatigue. It is also used externally on parts of the body that suffer from arthritis or rheumatisms.  Finally, it is an excellent condiment in dishes such as stuffed vine leaves, 'dolmadakia', soups, sweet cheese pastries such as 'kalitsounia', 'mizithropites', etc.
 
Note: When it is stored in the form of dried leaves it should not be crumbled but a few minutes before it is used otherwise part of its delicate oils evaporate.

 

CELERY - 'SELINO'

   

'Selinon' was the ancient Greek name for parsley, which was a variety with a taste closely resembling today's celery. The correct translation is 'wild celery,' or ' mountain celery', which is similar but with a more pungent and flavourful taste. It has slimmer stalks and more leaves than thick-stalked celery, both of which are used in cooking. It delivers more of a statement and creates a more authentic dish. In appearance, the leaves look a lot like flat-leaf parsley, but crushing a leaf in your fingers will let you know which is which.


Reference to it have been found on plates with writings in B linear script, in the works of Homer, Theofrastos and Dioskouridis. It is an excellent herb/vegetable, rich in metal elements and full of anti-oxidant properties . It  combines very well with fish or meats and gives a pleasant scent to soups. As a medicinal plant only its seeds are used for problems of the bladder, the kidneys and rheumatisms or arthritis. In Byzantine times, people used to make the so-called 'celery wine' to treat urological diseases, certain northern nations use its seed instead of pepper.

 

FENNEL - 'MARATHO'

 

This aromatic herb takes its Greek name from the word 'marainome' to grow thinner. It is known that athletes kept hunger at bay and kept slim by chewing the seeds and eating the shoots. It was believed that fennel conveyed longevity and and gave strength and courage. It was also thought to have a strange strengthening effect on the eyesight. In mythology, the hero Prometheus secretly stole fire from heaven. He hid the fire in the hollow stem of the giant fennel and brought it back to earth for mankind. 
 

During the Dionysian festivals the attendants of Dionysus, the god of wine, each carried a wand made out of a large fennel stalk topped with the pine cone called a 'thyrsus'. Fennel was used instead of wood because if, under the influence of drink, they had a quarrel they were unlikely to injure themselves. It is one of the oldest seasoning plants. The use of the plant varies, as a vegetable it can be used in mixtures with other wild herbs and vegetables, such as leeks. It is an important constituent of the mixture for herb-pies. Its seeds along with sea fennel add scent and preserve eating olives. Its seeds contain a high percentage of oil and have antibacterial, digestive and diuretic properties. It is used against gastroenteritis, and sourness of the stomach. 
 

GARLIC - 'SKORTHO'

 
Garlic dates back over 6,000 years, it is native to Central Asia, and has long been a staple in the Mediterranean region, as well as a frequent seasoning in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Egyptians worshipped garlic and placed clay models of garlic bulbs in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Garlic was so highly-prized, it was even used as currency. From the most ancient of times, garlic was believed to have magical and therapeutic properties, and was also considered an aphrodisiac. In the times of Homer, Greeks ate garlic daily with bread, as a condiment, or added to salads. 
 

Tradition has it that garlic repelled vampires, protected you against the Evil Eye, and warded off jealous nymphs that we said to have terrorised pregnant women and engaged maidens. And let us not forget to mention the alleged aphrodisiac powers of garlic which have been extolled through the ages. It is used as a vegetable and as a medicinal plant. Practically all dishes can be accompanied by garlic which gives a special taste to the food depending on the way it is cooked. It contains different substances (glycosides, vitamins, etc.)  Also, it is good for the stomach, it adjusts the intestinal acids and reduces cholesterol. Perhaps its only problem is its smell that can linger on the breath, this of course can be reduced by chewing parsley or mint or by drinking coffee.

   

DILL - 'ANITHOS'

 

According to Dioscurides, ancient Greeks used dill to flavour wine. Ancient Greek and Roman soldiers used dill as a medicinal herb, by placing burned dill seeds on their wounds this helped to promote healing. In Medieval Europe, dill could not be grown fast enough to satisfy consumer demand for its uses in love potions, for casting spells and for protection against witchcraft. Carrying a bag of dried dill over the heart was considered protection against hexes. Used intensively in cooking this herb can also stimulate the muscles of athletes. It is known to help avoid cramps, peptic disorders and colic. It has anticonvulsant properties and works as a stimulant also against obesity. In ancient times the people used the flowers of dill to extract perfume and its seeds to add aroma to their wine.

  

ANISEED - 'GLYKANISO'

  

Ancient Egyptians used anise, together with cumin and marjoram, for mummification, as well as for medicinal purposes also in the practice of magic. According to the ancient Greek doctor Dioscurides, anise induces sexual desire. Hippocrates recommended anise to stop episodes of sneezing. Pliny prescribed anise to women going into labour so that they would have an easier delivery. In the Byzantium, they used it to produce the so-called 'aniseed wine' . In western Crete today it is used as an aromatic herb in the production of rusks 'paksimadia'.


It is used in the production of alcoholic beverages, such as the Greek 'Ouzo' and the French 'Anisette', etc. It is one of the constituents of curry powder.  Its seeds are where its oil and tincture comes from. The infusion with seeds of aniseed is considered to be a powerful tisane. The essential oil obtained from anise seeds, because it contains anethol, is considered a diuretic, an aid to digestion, and an expectorant, among other medicinal uses.

   

 EDIBLE PLANTS 

  

Since ancient times Greek people have been very enthusiastic about eating 'agria horta', wild greens (edible weeds). In times of hardship they were a vital part of the diet. Still today in Greece, the older generation still live off the land. From autumn until early spring, it is popular to go out into the countryside and gather 'horta' and you will find it on many tavernas menus. Many plants that grown in the wild are either eaten raw or cooked in various ways, but some of these plants may be what you know as 'weeds.' Borage, Chicory, common sow thistle, crown daisy, dandelion, dill, dock, fennel, wild garlic, wild leek, common hedge mustard, nettle nipplewort, field poppy leaves, shepherd's needle, wild carrot, parsley, wild asparagus, black bryony shoots and common grape hyacinth, notchweed all boiled and served with olive oil and lemon juice. In the summer purslane grows in any areas and in the autumn rock samphire is found along the seashores. They are both used for salads. 

  

BULBS - 'VOLVI'

 

 
In many parts of Greece, the bulb of the tassel hyacinth 'muscari comosum' is used to make this dish. If you can't find these edible bulbs, I'm told that pearl onions can be substituted, although the taste will be different. Ancient Greeks also believed that onions were aphrodisiacs, so if they were right, the substitution shouldn't affect the outcome! There were many foods and beverages consumed in ancient Greece that we might not be anxious to try today, like cheese and garlic added to wine, but no more unusual than at least one of the foods that were considered to be aphrodisiacs.

 

When we think of bulbs, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn't "aphrodisiac;" yet, they were highly prized for their reputed positive effect on the libido. An aphrodisiac is defined as something (like a drug or food) that arouses or intensifies sexual desire. The name is derived from Aphrodite the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Ancient Greeks believed that certain bitter edible bulbs stimulated passion. They were cooked in various ways, and eaten with 'aphrodisiac salads' containing honey and sesame seeds two other foods considered libido-boosters.

  

NETTLE - 'AGOGLOSSI'

 

As an edible plant, it is of high nutritional value and is suitable for those who suffer from gout due to the fact that it does not contain acids like other vegetables. It contains formic acid in the stinging hairs of the leaves that causes the well known stinging feeling to all those who touch the plant.  It has diuretic,  anti-diabetic properties and acts against arthritis. The tisane (infusion) of nettle is very good in the treatment of the hairy part of the head because it stimulates blood circulation in the area and hair growth. It also acts against dandruff.

 

Purslane - 'GLISTRITHA'

 

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates, Galenus, and Dioscurides regarded purslane as an important medicinal herb for treatment of fever, female disorders, stomach aches, haemorrhoids, and for the healing of wounds. The 17th century monk Agapius Landus regarded purslane as a 'cold' herb and prescribed a fresh garden salad made with purslane, basil, rocket, cress, and garlic to those suffering with a common cold. Today, to many homeowners and gardeners, purslane is simply an invasive and ubiquitous weed, but modern medical research has found that purslane is five times richer in omega-3 fatty acids than spinach, and is high in vitamin C. 

 

WILS ASPARAGUS - 'SPARANGIA OR ASFARANGIA'

   

Wild asparagus 'aphyleus' is a perennial with tender edible shoots which can be steamed or fried in butter. It has no leaves, but sharp and spiny small branches with berries of red or black. It can be found at ends of fields, stony sites, especially under Olive tress and is found all over Crete

   

'Avronies or Ovries' other than it being a climbing shoot the spears look just like asparagus and can be cooked exactly the same as asparagus. This plant is found in wet habitats, gullies, springs, stone benches, gorges. Found all over Crete.

  

HERBAL MEDICINE - 'BOTANOTHERAPIA'

 
A number of common health problems, such as the common cold and indigestion or headaches, depression, etc., can be treated successfully with the use of herbs thus avoiding taking medicine that can have unpleasant side effects. Furthermore, even for more serious ailments, under the guidance of the competent physician, herbs can play an important role in the patient's cure and relieve from the symptoms. Among the diseases and ailments normally treated by botanotherapists are allergies, arthritis, infections, circulatory problems, liver diseases, gynaecological problems relating to menstrual cycle, skin diseases, stress related problems such as headaches, insomnia, palpitation.

   

Aristotle recorded that a wild goat injured by a hunter's arrow would try to find a certain plant, (origanum dictamus) the king of the endemic flora of Crete. As soon as the wild goat consumed this plant, the arrow would fall off the wound by itself! 
 In antiquity 'dictamus' was considered a form of panacea, a cure-all natural medicine. Hippocrates, would recommend 'dictamus' to induce labour. 

 

Oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme, mint, rosemary, bay, chamomile, and sage all of which have been used as medicinal plants since antiquity and numerous texts by ancient authors attribute to them all excellent therapeutic properties. Today these herbs are dried and used mainly in teas.

 

 
Eucalyptus - used to grow only in Australia, but nowadays they are imported and cultivated in countries of the Mediterranean. Apart from their wood, the leaves are known to have medicinal properties.  It has antiseptic, effects against bronchitis, cough, asthma and gingivitis. It is also keeps away insects (insect repellent). By drinking eucalypt tea or inhaling its odour through a wet handkerchief, you can refreshes your breath. Excess use of eucalypt is proven to be toxic for some people.

   

Olive leaves - the main product that comes from olive trees is olive oil, however, apart from this also the leaves and green olives are used in the local therapeutics. The leaves main constituent is the bitter glycoside, oleuropin. They are excellent against hypertension, they lower cholesterol levels and they help reduce the cancer index of the prostate. They have diuretic properties and contain anti-oxidant substances that are not destroyed during the preparation of the infusion which is carried out by adding finely cut leaves in boiled water that does not exceed 85 C. The tisane made increases the defence of the body and it is one of the best antibiotics that gives good results even in viral diseases

 

Citronella - in Greece it is cultivated as an ornamental, aromatic and medicinal plant. The tisane (tea) made from its leaves is lemon-scented. It is used against diarrhoea, fever, and is also known for its refreshing, diuretic and emollient properties. In mixtures it adds a special scent and improves the taste. 

  

Chamomile - known since antiquity for its medicinal and healing properties, chamomile is one of the most important constituents of calming concoctions found in pharmacies around the world.   It is also a constituent of many cosmetic skin and hair products. In Greece chamomile is a popular and well loved herb. This herb is soothing and sleep-inducing due to its sedative properties and is helpful for stomach problems and indigestion. An infusion of chamomile can be used for toothache and certain skin problems. Also, oil may be extracted from the flowers for use in perfume, medicine, and hair rinse. The flowers of the golden chamomile are a source of a yellow dye.

   

Mountain Tea - 'Malotira' Sideritis syriaca. There are many kinds of mountain teas. Every part of Greece has one or two known herbs which are indigenous of the area and which can give mountain tea. Their scent is similar but the taste of the tea is different as a result of their different chemical composition. The entire plant except the root is used. The herb that gives one of the best mountain teas known as mountain tea of Crete- is ' syriaca', a herb that grows high up on Psiloritis Mountain and the mountain range Lefka Ori. 


It is the favourite drink of the residents of western Crete. It is thought to have a powerful antibacterial effect, and is said to be excellent for diseases of the respiratory and of the urinary system. It acts against the common cold and helps soothe sore throats.

   

Lavender - its oil is one of the most aromatic. It has diuretic properties also it stimulates the nerves and acts as an analgesic for headaches, migraines and colic.  It gives a nice scent diluted in water in the bath and has powerful calmative properties. It is also used in wardrobes as a repellent of the clothes moth. Its oil is found in sun block lotions and in a tea for fainting, headaches and sunstroke, even a drop of oil on an insect bite can bring relief. 

   

Peppermint - tea is aromatic and refreshing. This herb has strong aphrodisiac properties. It is also good for, nervousness, insomnia, vertigo, migraines, cough and asthenia of the peptic system. It  helps the liver to function properly. 

 

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