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Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Wild aromatic Cretan herbs (Άγρια αρωματικά βότανα της Κρήτης)

A friend from New York who has been holidaying in Crete this summer told me how much she was enjoying the island's aroma, so much that she would rub her skin with the wild herbs found on almost every roadside to keep their perfume on her body. Natural smells of this type are not to be found in her environment, and she simply wants to savour them for as long as she can, before she returns home, where the smells and aromas have little to do with what is growing in the soil.

The wild natural smells that surround me, which are easily encountered almost everywhere on the island, being especially pronounced away from urban spaces, are often taken for granted by the locals, because they are found in plethora. Wherever I walk, I am not far from a bristly bush of bright purple wild thyme or a wild-growing rosemary plant. Then again, everyone has something highly aromatic growing in their garden or among their potted plants. Smells chase you in Crete.

I recently proof-read a Master's thesis based on a detailed profiling of four Cretan herbs that grow in the wild:

Origanum microphyllum, 
Origanum microphyllum - mantzourana in Greek, used dried, for tea (always in combination with Sideritis syriaca/cretica). "Origanum microphyllum (benth.) Vogel, commonly called “Matziorana”, is a perennial dwarf shrub endemic to Crete (Greece), with numerous stems 20-50cm usually branched... It is used as an aromatic and medicinal plant, usually as medicinal tea by infusing leaves and/or inflorescences in boiling water."
Origanum dictamnus, 
Origanum dictamnus - diktamos (also known as erontas) in Greek, used dried, for tea (always in combination with Sideritis syriaca/cretica). "According to ancient mythology the plant was dedicated to the ancient Cretan goddess Diktynna and thus was named dittany, it is well known since Aristotle’s time for its curing abilities and is broadly used in Crete till now as a panacea for every illness. Nowadays, as in the past, dittany is used as a condiment, herbal tea plant to cure cough and sore throats, relieve stomach-ache and several pains (Kouri et al., 2007). It has also many remedial properties such as anti-hemorrhage, healing wounds and gastric ulcers, facilitating childbirth and abortion, stimulating the nervous system (Economakis et al., 2002), spleen problems, against rheumatism and gynecological disorders, diabetes and obesity. Its cutaneous uses are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bleeding, and cicatrizing, and since it has been characterized by the U.S.A.CFR (2009) as a safe spice for consumption, it can be applied as a natural food additive, with a flavoring, antioxidant or preservative role (Liolios et al., 2010). It was also largely used in monasteries since the middle age, by the Benedictines and Trappistines monks in the famous liqueurs Benedictine and Trappistine, respectively."
Origanum vulgare,
Origanum vulgare - common oregano, rigani in Greek, the savoury herb, used dried, sometimes fresh, for flavour. "O. vulgare subsp. hirtum is widely used as spice under the name “Greek Oregano” and it is generally accepted that the Greek Oregano has the best quality; it is used in meat products, salads, soups and sauces, but it is also commonly used in traditional medicine to treat various diseases, for instance its essential oil has been recommended against rheumatism, toothache, and was used in the past for the preparation of soaps with antiseptic properties. The infusions of the leaves and flowers are used against cold, cough, and diarrhea. It has also been reported that the inhalation of the essential oils cure chronic pneumonia. These biological properties are reported to be related to the chemical composition of the plant, especially its essential oil (Skoula and Kamenopoulos, 1997)."
and Satureja thymbra.
Satureja thrymba, throumbi in Greek, a kind of savoury herb often call Pink Savoury, which is used in a similar way to Origanum vulgare (oregano - rigani). "S. thymbra has commercial importance as it is used as spice, and its essential oil is used in folk medicine as antiseptic, tonic, gastric sedative and diuretic. It also favors cicatrization of skin sores and wounds (Capone et al., 1989). The aerial parts of the plant have been widely used in traditional medicine, to treat many ailments such as muscle pains, cramps, arthritis, and infectious diseases (Marković et al., 2011). In addition, they are used in pharmaceuticals as anti-bacterials for the treatment of cold and bronchitis and in cosmetics (Gören et al., 2004)."
These herbs are all related, as they belong to the Lamiacease family; in fact, they all sound or look like the savoury herb commonly known as oregano, which they could well be, but they are all used in quite different ways in Crete. They are rich in many substances:
The main constituents for Origanum microphyllum were β-caryophyllene (20.73%), linalool (14.67%), cis-sabinene-hydrate (12.81), juniper-camphor (7.56%), sabinene (4.41 %), γ-terpinene (4.17%), and α-humulene (4.16%). The essential oil of Origanum dictamnus was dominated by carvacrol (22.77%), p-cymene (15.34%), γ-terpinene (11.57%), cis-thujone (9.53%), β-caryophyllene (7.44%), trans-thujone (6.10%), and α-copaene (4.24%). Carvacrol (58.70%), p-cymene (9.23%), γ-terpinene (7.57%), β-caryophyllene (5.67%), β-bisabolene (2.62%) and β-myrcene (2.44%) were the major constituents of Origanum vulgare. The chemical composition of Satureja thymbra was characterized by the presence of γ-terpinene (32.96%), thymol (17.13%), β-caryophyllene (16.04%), p-cymene (14.45%), α-terpinene (2.33%) and carvacrol (2.13%)... Almost all four plant species were rich in rosmarinic acid, apigenin and its derivatives and flavanones. Caffeic acid derivatives were present in O. microphyllum fractions and also in the ethyl acetate fraction of O. dictamnus. Vicenin-2 was found in O. dictamnus fractions, in the butanol fraction of O. vulgare and in S. thymbra. O. vulgare fractions contained luteolin and its derivatives, which have also been found in S. thymbra fractions. Quercetin glucoside, ferulic acid and stachydrine derivative were only present in S. thymbra, whereas yannaneic acid, p-coumaric acid derivative and maleate of homoplantagenine were found only in O. dictamnus... Comparing the results among the plant species, S. thymbra exhibited the highest antiradical activity in all cases. It should be noted that O. dictamnus has shown prooxidant activity in one of the assays. (Asma TAIR, MAICh thesis, 2013)
The further up you walk or drive, the more the aromatic wild plants growing. Some plants acclimatise well to lower ground (my uncle has successfully grown all the above plants in his coastal village garden except for Satureja thymbra, which I chanced upon on a drive through the southern coast); some are much harder to grow away from their habitat, eg Satureja thymbra and Sideritis syriaca/cretica (which my uncle harvested from a mountain side during a recent forage).
Sideritis syriaca/cretica - malotira in Greek, used dried, as a tea, usually in combination with Origanum dictamus - diktamos or erontas - or Origanum microphyllus - mantzourana; the latter two are used in much smaller quantities than malotira, which is the main herb used to make the tea (it can also be used on its own).
Generally speaking, with a little bit of care and attention, it is not hard to grow something useful for your nutrition in Crete.

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