From atop its proud mountains to the depths of its gorges, from its beaches to its forests, Crete is covered in herbs that scent its air and give it its true aroma. This land is described, rightly so, as a biodiverse paradise with a long tradition in herbs. Its geographical location, its terrain, and the proximity of its mountains to its beaches make the island home to around 2,000 native species and 224 endemic, found exclusively on Crete.
Anastasia Karpouzaki was lucky to grow up in Zaros, Heraklion, at a time and in an environment where contact with nature and everything it has to offer, was a way of life. At the foothills of mount Ida, in a beautiful village with bodies of water and lots of green, she found herself in nature, helping her parents and grandparents with their farm work, since very little.
Today, a farmer herself, and also the author of the book “Ta Votanakia” (the little herbs) she aims to preserve nature’s richness and pass on the precious images she grew up with to the next generations, inspiring them and helping them admire and respect nature.
Our conversation around herbs couldn’t start with anything else other than the emblematic dittany of Crete, (Origanum dictamum), the endemic jewel of Crete. It grows on mount Dikti, in the region of Lasithi. It is also known as erontas (love) because according to folk tradition you need to be in love to be able to pick it from the steep cliffs it grows on. The celebrated “erontades” in the past would pick it in pairs or in groups, with no real knowledge of climbing, and using primitive equipment, they tied themselves with ropes and hanged off rocks to pick the plant using long sticks. According to another version, the plant was called erontas due to its refreshing and aphrodisiac properties.
It has so many important properties, it’s almost a panacea. It’s a body and spirit tonic, and it’s also great for colds and coughs. Anastasia remembers her grandmother making a famous flu remedy of the time, that, in fact, in 1918 was also produced by a local industry. By rubbing the essential oil of dittany of Crete, oregano, sage and bay, ideally mixed with hontroelia olive oil, her grandmother would relieve any kind of pain and cold. It is also called the stomach herb, as it also has digestive properties. Traditionally, they would chew leaves for a while and swallow the juice, something that was enough to relieve pain.
The list with its various names is long, due to its many properties. Mouthleave, since chewing its leaves helps with bad breath. Stopgrass because using a poultice made with it you can stop bleeding from open wounds. It was known in antiquity for the contractions it causes and was used as a poultice on the belly to help with hard childbirths. Dittany of Crete was also used, along with sage and summer savory to clean barrels before pouring in the new wine. After being widely used and traded for over 3,000 years, the herb became scarce. It’s cultivation first started in 1928 in Heraklion and was interrupted in the Second World War and continued again later in an effort to preserve the plant, which is endangered in its wild form.
Another emblematic herb of Crete, a perfect companion to dittany of Crete, is the local mountain tea, malotiras (Sideritis syriaka) that grows on mount Ida and the Lefka Ori, between 900-2,000m altitude and chases away any illness, like its Latin name, maletira, implies. It too is a tonic and is considered excellent for colds, bronchitis and other afflictions of the respiratory system, as well as for digestion. Anastasia informs us that traditionally in Crete, it was used to lower a fever, and also used externally as an antiseptic and to heal wounds. It is also great as a honey plant, producing a celebrated honey that has become very rare lately due to the reduction of its wild population. Unfortunately, this Cretan treasure, that the older generations described as “the yellow valley on the slopes” during its flowering season, has disappeared from mount Ida and only 10% of the population from 30 years ago still exists on the Lefka Οri. It’s another case in which the recent cultivation efforts are very important for preserving the species.
Another important endemic plant that is usually mixed with malotiras to add flavour is the wild or Cretan small leaved oregano, origanum microphyllum. It grows on the Dikti massifs and on Lefka Ori between 400-1,500m altitude and is traditionally used as a beverage for sore throats, colds, diarrhoea and stomach ailments. It’s also a great antiseptic and helps with rheumatisms, and only recently has it become the subject of in-depth research by scientists.
Anastasia’s stories about the herbs she grew up with, and their traditional uses are endless. She also mentions Cretan sage, salvia fruticosa or triloba, as a general tonic that is great for mouth and throat afflictions like gingivitis and tooth aches, when used as a mouthwash. She remembers her grandfather rubbing its fresh leaves on her teeth to make them shinier. In addition, in the past, they would burn its dried leaves in the hospitals to clean the space, due to its antimicrobial properties. Furthermore, they would boil it in water during the night on low fire, together with rosemary, bay and thyme and would wash their hair in the morning, to help with hair loss.
Anastasia also remembers therapeutic baths with lemon balm and rosemary. The oregano tea, apart from curing flu, helped stop hiccups. In addition, she remembers her aunt making a rosemary crown for her cousins when they had exams, as it is known to help with clarity and memory. And she advises us to chew fresh thyme leaves and blossoms to hydrate, if we’re ever in the mountain and run out of water, as thyme produces more saliva and helps with hydration.
While she loves picking herbs in the wild, as herbs are wild plants, she says that their cultivation is a way of preserving them. Older people in the villages still know the properties of herbs and use them, but in the past it was done with more care and passion and she thinks this is something we should aim for; reviving traditions and practices of the past that form such a great part of our heritage.
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