The Herbs of Greece

Circe depicted on a 5th century BCE oinochoe in the Musée du Louvre, Paris

I’ve just returned from a week in Greece with a suitcase full of dried herbs and blue glass mati. This was my first visit to the country and I was excited to encounter some of the local herbs, several of which have legendary status in the region’s mythology. Greek herbalism has an ancient lineage, reflected in the earliest European medical texts. These are the herbs of Theophrastus, Hippocrates and Crateuas, gathered by the rhizotomoi on the sacred mountains and compounded in the pharmaka of Circe, Medea and Chiron. They are still known and loved by the people of Greece today.

I should like to return to Greece and spend some time in the countryside meeting these herbs in the wild, an opportunity I did not have on this trip. Fortunately, Athens is replete with wonderful herb and spice shops, many located on Evripidou, in easy walking distance of Monastiraki station. My favourite was Elixir (Ελιξιριον, Evripidou 41, Athina 105 54 – look for the witch on the sign). In Britain most herbs sold in stores are chopped almost to powder but those in Greece are sold whole. The staff pulled great branches from wooden drawers and broke off stems and leaves for me. The quality and freshness was impressive and many herbs were wild-harvested. Organic herbs are also available at speciality supermarkets.

For those new to Greek herbs, a little research before visiting these shops is worthwhile. Although you will find most of the proprietors speak English, the herbs are almost exclusively labelled in Greek and shopkeepers are generally unfamiliar with English common names (if they even apply.) Of course, herb folk may recognise many of the herbs from Northern Europe – lemon verbena and linden were particularly popular. However it seems a pity to purchase herbs that grow closer to home when new and exciting encounters are available.

To this end, I’ve put together a short guide to four Greek herbs you will find in almost any herb shop in Athens – and one resin that I became particularly enamoured with during my stay. These herbs are also available from online suppliers, although at a far steeper price than in Athens. I must add the disclaimer that I am only beginning to experiment with these herbs and so am relying largely on research rather than experience. It is always challenging to research ethnobotanical lore and plant magic when you do not speak or read the native language. For that reason I would welcome corrections and/or additions from Greek speakers.

Diktamo / Δίκταμο ‘Dittany of Crete’

Origanum dictamnus

The most legendary of Greek healing herbs, dittany is a member of the oregano genus with soft downy, ovate leaves and small pink flowers. Native to Crete, it is now protected in the wild and instead cultivated for the herbal market. It makes a pleasant, savoury tea with a flavour somewhere between marjoram and sage.

In Greek folklore, dittany has a reputation as an aphrodisiac, indeed the Cretan name for it is erontas (from Eros) and it is given to newlyweds. Another tradition states that one must be truly in love to gather it from the rocky mountains and valleys in which it grows, these passionate young harvesters being dubbed erondades.

However, dittany’s greatest reputation is as a healing herb. There is a legend that when struck by poison arrows, the goats on mount Ida (Crete) would eat dittany to cure themselves. This is repeated by Aristotle, Pliny, Dioscorides and Galen among others. The tale was inherited by the Romans and Venus heals Aeneas with dittany in Virgil:

Hereupon Venus, smitten by her son’s cruel pain, with a mother’s care plucks from Cretan Ida a dittany stalk, clothed with downy leaves and purple flowers; not unknown is that herb to wild goats, when winged arrows have lodged in their flanks.

Aeneid, Book XII.411–415, Loeb edition

Mount Ida is named for one of the nymphs who nursed the infant Zeus, hiding him in the Idaean cave.

The herb has a reputation in ancient and medieval sources as something of a panacea, but it is particularly recommended for gastric distress and difficult childbirth (best to avoid during early pregnancy.) It has also been recommended as a poultice for wounds.

Tsai Tou Vounou / Τσάι του βουνού‘Mountain Tea’ ‘Shepherd’s Tea’ ‘Ironwort’

Sideritis spp.

Known as ‘mountain tea’ or even just ‘tea’, this is the most popular herbal tea in the country. I found tins of it in AirBnB’s and it was more common on cafe menus than camellia sinensis. There are several different varieties in the genus. The one I purchased is ‘Olympus mountain tea’ (Sideritis scardica) which is widely available and apparently grown near the holy mountain. It has a mild flavour and is usually consumed in winter with lemon and/or honey. Mountain tea is prepared as a decoction (boiled in the water) rather than as a tisane (steeped tea).

Given how prevalent mountain tea is in Greece, it is surprisingly unknown outside the Mediterranean. The latin name of this genus comes from the Greek word σίδηρος (sithiros) which translates as ‘he who is made of or has iron.’ In ancient sources it was considered a remedy for wounds caused by iron weapons, which may have been indicated in sympathy by its spear-like growth. The plant has been analysed and found rich in iron, among other minerals.

In modern Greece, it is considered a cold and flu remedy and a tonic for general health. Recent research has demonstrated that sideritis may be beneficial to patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The herb also appears to have a reputation as an aphrodisiac in Turkey and Bulgaria.

Kistos / Κίστος – ‘Rock Rose’

Cistus spp.

Of all the Greek herbs I tried during my travels, this was my favourite. As a tisane, the flavour is unusually tart, a little like the liquid from pickled vegetables, but very refreshing. The pink flowers open and blossom in the cup; it is an enchanting plant.

The rock rose produces a scented black resin called labdanum. Herodotus (5th cent BCE) writes that goatherds would send their animals to graze on the bushes and then comb the resin from their beards. In the 19th century labdanum was harvested by means of a rake with leather thongs attached called a lambadistrion, however the modern method seems to involve heating the wood. Labdanum has been used medicinally, cosmetically and as incense across the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa.

In Hesiod’s account, the Gorgon Medusa was seduced by Poseidon on the isle of Kisthene in a field of what may have rock rose flowers – given that the island is named for the plant.

…and Medusa who suffered a woeful fate: she was mortal, but the two were undying and grew not old.  With her lay the Dark-haired One (ed. Poseidon) in a soft meadow amid spring flowers.

Hesiod, Theogony 270-276, trans. Evelyn-White 1914

Rock rose is used medicinally to fight infection as an antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial herb. It is therefore employed for colds and flus and has even been shown to resist HIV and Ebola.

Fliskouni / Φλισκούνι – Pennyroyal ‘Mountain Mint’

Mentha pulegium

The most infamous member of the mint family – a plant that has caused the death of countless women and small children, or so the internet would have you believe. The dangerous reputation of this herb comes from a handful of reported cases of women taking lethal doses of the essential oil as an abortifacient. As any herbalist or aromatherapist will tell you, very few essential oils should be consumed internally and never in large doses (though my sympathy is with the women who felt the need to resort to it). Pennyroyal essential oil should not be used topically either, as it contains concentrated levels of pulegone – an organic component toxic to the liver.

However, dried pennyroyal is sold in grocery stores in Greece as an after-dinner tisane to aid digestion, so perhaps the Greek wikipedia entry is a little less paranoid. That said, Pennyroyal has been used traditionally as an abortifacient, and indeed famously so in the ancient world. It should therefore be avoided during pregnancy and not given to small children, who may be more sensitive to pulegone. The particularly cautious may wish to avoid using this herb altogether, although there are no reported cases of fatal adult poisoning from the tisane. Research has shown a vast difference in the amount of pulegone found in wild pennyroyal (ranging from 0.1 to 90.7% of the total oil), which may also explain why a few people have had bad reactions to the herbal infusion. Pulegone is also found in lesser quantities in cat mint and peppermint.

In ancient Greece, pennyroyal was sometimes added to a drink called kykeon. This beverage was commonly made from water, wine, honey and barley and flavoured with herbs. In Book X of the Odyssey, Circe prepares kykeon for Odysseus’ men, adding unnamed herbs to change them to swine. The addition of pennyroyal (glechon or blechon in Ancient Greek) is mentioned in the Homeric hymn to Demeter:

She [Demeter] asked instead for barley and water to drink mixed with tender leaves of glechon. Metaneira made the potion and gave it to the goddess as she had asked; and great Deo received the potion as the precedent for the Mystery.

Homeric Hymn to Demeter, line 207 ff; trans. Wasson et al. 1998

Scholars have debated whether the kykeon given to initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries had hallucinogenic properties, either from additional secret herbs or ergot present on the barley. However, it almost certainly contained pennyroyal.

Pennyroyal is also a powerful insecticide, recommended by Pliny and other ancient authors to deter fleas. Coincidentally, I had a chance to try this out, as Athens has a large population of stray cats. I discovered flea bites when I woke on my first morning there so I strewed the bed with dried pennyroyal and was not bitten again!

Mastica / Μαστίχα – ‘Mastic’

Pistacia lentiscus

On my first night in Athens I had a glass of Mastic liqueur and was delighted by the flavour – it was like drinking incense, a mix of frankincense and pine resin with a touch of myrrh. I soon discovered many mastic-flavoured delights in Greece, including infused springwater, lemonade and lokum. I purchased the raw resin and an oil to experiment with back home.

Mastic is a yellow-white, translucent resin harvested from lentisk trees on the island of Chios. The tree is said to ‘cry’, an effect produced by making multiple small incisions in the trunk, creating ‘tears of Chios.’ There is certainly a melancholy reputation to this ‘wounded tree’. The production of mastic gum has been crucial to the island’s economic importance for centuries. Mastic was particularly prized by the Ottomans who conquered Chios, the gum was provided to the Sultan and his harem for medicinal and cosmetic purposes.

In ancient sources mastic is described as a ‘chewing gum’ to clean teeth and freshen breath. It was also prescribed for lung conditions, digestive problems and snakebite. Mastic was used in Egyptian embalming mixtures and is one of the sixteen ingredients listed in Plutarch’s recipe for kyphi, likewise appearing in the recipe inscribed on the temple at Edfu. Mastic occurs in post-medieval grimoire texts as a suffumigation of Mercury, the Sun and Gemini. Chios mastic is added to the holy oil of the Greek Orthodox church. Both the scent and taste are cleansing and invigorating.

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