Saturday, 31 December 2016

Askeletoura (Ασκελετούρα)

It's askeletoura time in Greece! In the same way, as the pomegranate, this bulbous plant is smashed jut before the new year on the ground before your front door, for good luck!

AskeletetouraDrimia maritima, is also known by the name of 'skilokromido', which literally means 'dog-onion'. This perennial plant grows up to 50-150cm when in flower, and has a very large bulb diameter of up to 18cm. The large leaves appear after flowering. Inflorescence is large with many white flowers with green or purple veins. It flowers from August to October; now, all we see of it is the leaves. It grows all over the place, especially in undisturbed plots of land which aren't normally cultivated. It's common all over Crete, and in the Mediterranean.

Some of my colleagues at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania run a Mediterranean Plant Conservation Unit. They have collected the following information on the traditional uses and folklore surrounding the askeletoura:

Protective properties were attributed to the askeletoura by the ancient Greeks. The askeletoura has served as a good luck charm since ancient timesand it was hung over the doors of houses. A ring dating back to the Minoan period, which was found in Mochlos, Sitia, Crete, clearly shows the bulb of the askeletouras hung above the stern of a ship, and  above the gate which is shown in front of the ship. Even Dioscorides praises this onion hanging over the door, and the great Pythagoras also followed this custom. This giant onion, which survives the summer drought to flower in autumn with its tall floral ears, symbolizes the power that people wanted to pass onto their lands and their homes. For the followers of Hippocrates, the askeletoura was one of the oldest medicinal plants. Athianios mentions it as 'myofonon' (meaning 'mouse poison'). Theophrastus wrote about it in "On Plant Histories". He mentions that it blooms three times a year, it has a high rate of germination in uncultivated fields, it grows and stays ageless, and it transmits its germination rate onto other plants that are growing closely to it. The ease with which it germinates and its agelessness were gifts endowed by Kallo, the fairy of beauty, who had sprinkled holy water over it as she came across it during her strolls in the moutnains and the valleys. This tradition also exists in Crete, which gives rise tot he saying that "the askeletoura never dies and will never disappear from the fields." In older times, people hung the askeletoura on the first of May on the doors of their homes to bring them luck, and on New Year's Day, they hung one in the doorway, for good luck. This New Year's custom continues to this day, but we also smash a the askeletoura (like the pomegranate) at the entrance of the house for good luck.

Cretan folk healing does not use the plant as an internal medicine. It uses it externally, in bandages of mashed bulbs, as a drug for the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism. The mashed bulbs were also used with flour as a poison against rodents. In September, the askeletoura blooms, bringing forth a long stick full of flowers. When watered, the askeletoura does not bloom; Greece can be very dry in September. Farmers carefully observed the flowering of the askeletoura. When the floral stem of the askeletouras was looking very bright and full of flowers, the barley yield would be good. In the year when it did produce a stem, farmers believed that the crop would be destroyed. In the area of ​​Rethymno, Crete, when the 'lantzouni' (as they called the stem) was full of flowers, they would understand that the winter would be heavy, while when it was half full, the winter would not be so cold. Children used the dried stems as a toy, making various objects with them. The askeletoura is also a very good bee plant, as it contains a lot of nectar. 

In this world full of prophecies of doom and gloom, it's reassuring to see the askeletoura continuing to grow undisturbed, despite the calamities that have befallen Earth, our only home. Its constant presence is a sign of great hope. 

Happy New Year!

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