As we are deep into the winter months in Ohio, sickness has traveled through my home prompting me to pull out my dried herbs that I got on my last stop in Greece this summer- the island of Crete. Stopping in Crete, my intentions were to further explore the Mediterranean diet and the gastrostomy of Crete, however, my travels and studies took me in a different direction. Cretan herbs are a great tradition of the island as Crete is famous for its aromatic plants and herbs which grow everywhere from the mountains to the farming and coastal areas. Once collected from the steep mountain sides, they are dried under natural conditions and often used as teas. Many of these plants and herbs grow rampant but you can also find them in pots and in peoples gardens who are growing them for their personal use. While exploring the cities of Heraklion, Chania, and surrounding areas, I noticed that most of the homes had either gardens or their front porches were covered with pots of different plants. These pots held the secret home remedies of all those who inhibit the island. These plants have been used since ancient times for their medicinal properties, however, with the influx of western medicine, the use of these medicinal herbs has decreased. Before the discovery of antibiotics, herbal teas were often used to treat illness. Some Cretans hold on to their grandparents and great grandparents natural home remedy traditions of using these herbal teas for their medicinal properties. In addition, you will also still find these herbs delivering nutritional properties by flavoring delicious Cretan dishes. Although these herbal teas have many positive effects, always check with your physician as they can react with medications you may be taking as well as different health conditions.
8 Cretan Medicinal Herbal Teas
There are many names for this Cretan herb including Dittany of Crete and Hop Marjoram. In Greek it is known as Diktamo and in Cretan dialect Erontas which means love. This plant is aromatic and is considered to be healing and therapeutic. You can find it growing on the mountainsides and gorges of this lovely Greek island. It is easily recognizable as it has a distinctive soft, woolly covering of white-grey hair on its stems and round green leaves giving it the appearance of a velvety texture with a tiny rose-pink flower.
As mentioned, the plant has the nickname of Erontas, which comes from the Greek word Eros, meaning romantic love. The plant acquired this nickname as it is said to symbolize love and to be an aphrodisiac. Legend has it that in Crete, only the most in love young men braved the steep mountainsides and gorges gathering bunches of this plant to be given as love tokens. Collection of this herb proved very dangerous as it grows wild on the steep mountainside. Those men who risked their life to get the herb were named Erondades (love seekers) and were considered to be very passionate men as they were going to such great lengths to collect it.
Diktamo has been known since the ancient times. Known as the father of medicine, Hippocrates would prescribe it for stomach disorders, gastric ulcers, against rheumatism, to facilitate childbirth, to induce menstruation and to heal wounds. Aristotle noted in his work, The History of Animals, that the plant would heal wounds on mountain goats. Growing on the mountain side where the goat population is high, it was said that when the goats got injured, they would rub their wound against the plant and it would rapidly heal. It has also been associated with several medicinal properties such as triggering appetite, an antioxidant, diuretic, digestive, antispasmodic, astringent, soothing the nervous system, antibacterial and antifungal.
Currently, the natural grown Diktamos is considered rare and is protected by European law so that it does not become extinct. It is cultivated in areas of Crete and is mainly consumed as a tea and used in vermouth, bitters and used in natural beauty products.
Although cultivated around the world, Sage, known in Greek as Faskomilo, is one of the most common herbs of Crete and has a long history of medicinal use. Sage blooms in May and June producing purple-blue flowers and gives off an excellent fragrance. In addition to its medicinal properties, in cooking, it is used as a spice in various dishes, especially with meat.
Use of sage has been recorded since ancient times not only in Greece but all over the world. In Greece, ancient use of the herb can be seen depicted on the Minoan Frescos in Knossos. In folklore, sage was a symbol of virtue, purification, immortality and salvation. It was believed that to burn sage near someone ill, would promote a speedy recovery. Aristotle classified sage as a “coronary herb” because it was believed to have the ability to flush disease from the body which eased undue strain on the heart. Hippocrates recommended drinking 2 cups of sage tea a day to stop sweating. The ancient Greeks also used sage to treat consumption, ulcers and snakebites. Traditionally it has been used for the treatment of digestive and circulation disturbances, bronchitis, cough, asthma, angina, mouth and throat inflammations, depression, excessive sweating and skin diseases.
Modern day medicinal uses of sage include as a tea for digestive problems including loss of appetite, gas, stomach pain, diarrhea, bloating and heartburn. It is also used for reducing overproduction of perspiration and saliva, for depression, memory loss, painful menstrual periods, to correct excessive milk flow during nursing and to reduce hot flashes during menopause. Sage can be applied directly to the skin for cold sores, gum disease and for a sore mouth, throat or tongue.
Sage has natural source of flavonoids and polyphenolic compounds possessing strong antioxidant and antibacterial activities. Studies have been done researching sage in relation to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, reducing hot flashes and as a treatment for diarrhea with promising results.
Sage was used in ancient times for the beneficial effects on memory disorders, depression and cerebral ischemia. It has been used for centuries to help restore lost or declining mental functions such as in Alzheimer’s disease. Some modern studies have been completed showing that sage can be effective in the management of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease however does not stop the progression.
Malotira as known in Crete, is one of the most characteristic Cretan herbs. It is abundant in the mountains of Crete but also can be found throughout many Mediterranean countries. It is known throughout Greece as Mountain tea or tsai tou bounou. This plant is similar to chamomile and acquired its name as it grows wild in the mountains at high altitudes but also in rocky areas with very little dirt. Mountain tea can be easily identified as it has fuzzy stems each with multiple small yellow flowers. It was known as “Malotira” in ancient times which referred to the thought that it possessed the ability to heal wounds caused by metal objects.
Mountain tea is well-known all-over Greece for its homeopathic properties. Research has shown that Greek mountain tea possesses significant health properties including as an antioxidant with an antioxidant content comparable to green tea and found to have two times the bioflavonoid content of chamomile tea. Scientific studies found that this tea has strong antioxidant, oxidative stress reduction, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and gastro-protective properties. Its nutritional properties include containing considerable amounts of flavonoids, antioxidants, tannins, iron, cobalt, zinc, potassium, magnesium, sodium and volatile oils. It is used to help combat cold and flu, sore throats, respiratory problems and headaches. It has anti-inflammatory properties and can help with anxiety and blood pressure problems. Malotira is also used for the relief of stomach disorders and as a diuretic.
You will often see Cretans drinking Malotira daily at breakfast not only as an enjoyable tea but also as a medicine. They add a dollop of honey to their tea which also provides additional healing properties.
As the Greeks call it, rigani, is considered an extremely important herb along with thyme in Mediterranean cuisine. Enter any Greek restaurant and your nostrils are sure to be filled with the wonderful sweet, spicy scent of oregano and lemon that is found in many dishes.
In addition to utilizing this plant for its magical aroma and delicious flavor, Greeks have used oregano for its medicinal properties since ancient times. It is used as an appetizer, antiseptic, sedative for toothaches and stomachache. In the Mediterranean region, oregano has been used for centuries in herbal medicine to treat many ailments including skin sores, aching muscles, asthma, cramping, diarrhea, indigestion, colds and to boost overall health. Modern day uses of oregano as a medicinal property has not been demonstrated through scientific evidence and continues to be utilized more as an herb in cuisine. Oregano does provide antioxidants which can help reduce the risk for environmental stresses that may result in diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Oregano oil has been studied with tests indicating that oregano may have antibacterial properties. Other studies have looked at possible anti-inflammatory, anti- cancer properties and anti-diabetic properties that may be present in oregano. There is not enough evidence to support the medicinal use of oregano as a dietary herb, supplement or oil at this point but adding it into your cuisine can provide you with not only a delicious taste but many antioxidants and possible chronic disease preventable properties.
Thymari, as the Greeks call, it is an herb which the flowers, leaves and oil are used in medicine in Greece. It has tiny pinkish/purple flowers and an intoxicating aroma and can be found growing wild and rampant all over Crete.
A health property found in thyme is that it contains a chemical that might help bacterial and fungal infections. It is often used as medicine for the respiratory system as a cough suppressant and in cough syrups as it is clearing, calming and soothing to the lungs and so is great as a tea when you are sick. In modern medicine, thyme is taken by mouth for bronchitis, whooping cough, sore throat, colic, arthritis, upset stomach, stomach pain, diarrhea, parasitic worm infections and skin disorders. Thyme oil is also used as a germ-killer in mouthwashes and liniments.
In Mediterranean cuisine, thyme is used along side oregano, marjoram and mint to add aroma and flavor to many Greek dishes. It is commonly used to season soups, sauces and braises as well as in potatoes, rice dishes, vegetables and even fresh bread.
Known in Greek as hamomili, chamomile is found everywhere in Crete. The main constituents of chamomile flowers are polyphenol compounds so it is high in antioxidant activity. Chamomile is widely used as a tea for relaxation. Clinical studies have shown that chamomile has mild sedative effects when administered as a tea and so it is no wonder that the Greeks often consume it as a hot tea before bed to help you relax and fight insomnia. Chamomile is considered to have anti-inflammatory, anti- allergic and antiseptic properties which make it a great herb to use for allergies and rashes as well as eye and sinus infections. Other medicinal uses include helping to regulate monthly periods and used for reducing inflammation in arthritis and relaxed smooth muscles of the intestine. If you have an allergy to ragweed you should beware as it is in the same plant family and my stir up symptoms.
Known in Greek as louiza (Louisa), this herb has a bright lemony, minty taste. In gastrostomy, it is used for marinating, cooking and baking in the Mediterranean diet. As most other herbal teas, it has strong antioxidant properties. What makes this herb stand out is its effects on heartburn and gastric reflux. This herb is considered a stomachic and therefore good for relieving indigestion, heartburn and for tonifying the digestive tract.
Known in Greek as matzourana, marjoram is a popular Greek herb that has a pleasant and sweet taste. Although the scientific evidence is lacking, the ancient Greeks valued marjoram for its medicinal properties. Today, Marjoram is used as an herb in cooking however, Hippocrates used it as an antiseptic, for nervous disorders and to promote better blood circulation. Today, Cretans believe that tea made from the leaves of marjoram can help with the common cold symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, throat pain and ear pain. In addition, Marjoram tea is used for digestive problems such as a loss of appetite, gallstones and intestinal gas and cramps. Women use it to relieve symptoms of menopause and menstrual periods as well as promoting the flow of breast milk.
How to prepare Greek herbal teas:
To prepare one of these herbal Greek teas (for one person) start by gathering 1-2 stems of the tea leaves and break them into pieces to fit either your briki or pot. Fill your briki or pot with 1 cup of water and turn heat to medium-high. Place your tea leaves into the water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, remove the briki/pot from the heat and steep for 5-10 minutes. Using a strainer to catch the leaves, pour tea into a mug. You can drink the tea as is, or sweeten with honey and/or lemon.