Greek Herbal Traditions: a small introduction
Herbalists in the USA are often taught that ancient Greek medicine is the foundation of our Western herbal tradition (Hippocrates, the humoral system, Dioscorides, etc). But a unified, Greek healing tradition has not survived to this day in the same way as Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurveda.
Instead, herbs have been tightly woven into the daily lives and folk remedies of the average person. Most of the Greeks that I’ve met so far don’t even think of their herbal preparations as “medicine”: they are simply doing the things their grandparents taught them, cooking herbs into their meals and making tea. So in order to talk about “Greek herbal traditions,” we really need to start by looking at Greek cuisine.
wild greens & bitter pies
Almost everyone in the USA has heard of the “Mediterranean diet” - a primarily plant-based approach to eating, with plenty of whole foods, fresh fish, limited red meat, and lots (and lots!) of olive oil.
But what most people miss about the Mediterranean - and specifically the Greek diet - is that boiled, wild greens are still a staple in the average home. Called horta, these greens are harvested year-round, boiled, and served drowning in olive oil with a large slice of lemon.
The variety of greens often depends on what’s in season and regionally available, but they could be dandelion, several different varieties of chicory or amaranth, sow thistle, nettles, and more.
At almost every neighborhood restaurant in both the cities and the villages, you can purchase horta with your meal. Coming from the USA, it’s truly amazing to order a heaping plate of boiled herbs as easily as one orders a salad!
In Greece, you can easily purchase many of these greens yourself to cook at home; fresh dandelion leaf, beetroot greens, chicory and mustard greens are inexpensive and found next to the spinach in most grocery stores. And at the laiki (the Greek version of a neighborhood farmers’ market), entire stalls are devoted to the greens mentioned above!
Today, in order to keep up with demand, the majority of horta at restaurants and groceries in the cities are cultivated instead of wildcrafted. Bitter or semi-bitter, people take home these fresh-picked, leafy greens by the bag-full (often still moist with soil!) in order to boil them or to add them to hortopita (a filo pastry similar to spanakopita, but made with horta instead of spinach).
herbs, herbs, everywhere
Accessibility to other herbs, both fresh and dry, is just as effortless. Unlike most American grocery stores where you can buy tiny plastic clamshells of “fresh” culinary herbs for close to $3.00, the produce section offers hearty bunches of parsley, dill, basil and mint for the equivalent of 75 cents or less.
What's more amazing, you can usually find at least one dried herb stall at each neighborhood laiki - and there are several permanent herb and spice shops in most neighborhoods. At the public agora on Athinas street in downtown Athens (which has continuously been home to a food market for thousands of years) there are even several streets lined with stores that only sell dried herbs, both culinary and medicinal!
Each region or island seems to have its own specialty and in many villages you can purchase dried, wildcrafted herbs, often collected by the village elders: wild oregano, thyme leaves and flowers, spicy dictamo (a Cretan native and relative of oregano), lavender, or bundles of yarrow. There is also a long tradition of using St John's Wort, mastic, sage, nettles, calendula, lemon balm, mallow, pennyroyal, linden, valerian, chamomile...the list goes on!
And we cannot forget the panacea of the Greek countryside: tsai tou vounou. Literally called “mountain tea,” tsai tou vounou are a variety of self-sowing perennials in the Labiatae family with the genus Sideritis. Typically found at very high altitudes, the flower-bearing stems are harvested, dried and then traditionally drunk either as a tonic or as a warming remedy for digestive upset or respiratory issues (such as colds and flus).
be careful where you shop
Unfortunately, most of the conventional shops that I’ve found in Athens don’t have medicinally-potent herbs. Many of them will store their herbs outside the shop door or on the floor in open, burlap sacks, exposed to the sunlight and air (not to mention the ample pollution from the street). And while it’s very atmospheric to walk into a dusty apothecary with herbs hanging in bundles from the rafters - and walls lined with wooden drawers stuffed with loose herbs - I am always hesitant to purchase.
This is where my intuition and herbal training comes into play: do the herbs look and smell potent? Most often, they are devoid of vitality, their color bleached or speckled with disease. Other times, I have gotten home with bags of herbs only to find large clumps of dirt and crumbling dust mixed in with the leaves (and brewing a cup of mud with a dash of nettles for my guests does not exactly inspire confidence in my herbal preparations!).
But many of these herbs grow wild in the mountains, on the islands, or even just outside of Athens - and for the discerning wildcrafter, it is relatively easy to harvest and craft your own medicines.
As American and western-European culture (and their reliance on pharmaceutical medicine) have influenced Greece, many herbal traditions are changing or disappearing. But the good news is that there are several organic herb shops popping up in Athens that sell high-quality, Greek-grown, medicinally-potent herbs. And despite the fact that many people (especially in the cities) are still turning to pharmaceuticals, there is a desire for self-reliance and traditional knowledge.
Since the economic crisis has impacted people’s financial security (as well as their trust in “the establishment”), many of the younger generations are turning back to the land and the wisdom of their ancestors. I've heard of some younger people taking risks and returning (or remaining) in their villages to wildharvest, learn traditional farming methods, and even start their own businesses.
As an herbalist with a deep passion for the Greek landscape, I’m truly excited to be here at this particular moment in history - reconnecting with the herbs of this landscape and learning about the plants that have shaped my ancestors' culinary and healing traditions.