CULTURE

The benefits of herbs that heal

Since antiquity, Greece has been rich in aromatic and medicinal plants due to its climate, geography and soil, and the commercial cultivation of pharmaceutical plants is a growing concern. The main exports from Greece are the crocus and oregano, but markets are also emerging for other plants in Europe and elsewhere. Some sources say that although similar products might be produced at a lower cost in other Mediterranean countries, the quality is not always as good as those from Greece. According to a representative of Korres, the main Greek manufacturer of homeopathic medicines, which uses plants in some of its cures and also produces a range of herbal products, only 60 percent of the quantity of plants the company needs are cultivated in Greece, although nearly all species are found here. The State is taking some steps to further encourage the commercial cultivation of medicinal plants. Drawing on funds from the Third Community Support Framework, the Finance and Agriculture ministries hope to increase the total cultivated area from the current 1,700 hectares to 10,000 hectares by 2007 by providing subsidies ranging from 36,000 to 11 million euros for processing and promoting medicinal crops. Some of the the better-known herbs of the Greek countryside are Origanum onites (oregano, riganiin Greek), Ocimum basilicum (basil, vassilikos), Tilia cordata (linden, tilio), Origanum majorana (marjoram, matzourana), Thymus sibthorpii beth (thyme, thymari) Menta viridis (garden mint or spearmint, dyosmos or menta) Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary, dendrolivano), Laurus nobilis (bay, dafni) Matricaria chamomila (camomile, hamomili), Salvia officinalis (sage, faskomilo), Sideritis scardia Griseb (mountain tea, malothira or tsai vounou) and from the island of Crete, Oreganum dictamnus (dittany, dictamo). Curative properties Plants have always been the basis of many cures and not only those used in the preparation of other alternative medicines. Extracts of Digitalis lanata (woolly foxglove) regulate the heartbeat of people with heart ailments; Chondrodendron tomentosum (curare) produces a muscle relaxant used in surgery, and aspirin, acetlysalicylic acid, (ASA) is a synthetically produced compound derived from the naturally occurring salicin, found in the bark of the willow tree. In all cultures, there are effective traditional remedies for common ailments using readily available herbs, although in Greece these traditions have been dying out. People often dismiss the healing properties of, for example, camomile for upset stomachs and put more faith in pills, even for the mildest ailments. Some interest has been re-emerging as more people turn to alternative therapies, an interest that the beauty industry has also exploited with herbal products. Although mountain tea, linden tea and camomile are sold in supermarkets, knowledge common just one or two generations ago of the healing and restorative properties of other herbs has largely been lost. Oreganoleaves, used widely to flavor Mediterranean food, can also be used to relieve stomach pain and coughing. Marjoram was used in ancient Egypt to relieve migraine and nervousness. Thyme flowers have antiseptic properties and are used as a tonic for the immune system, to relieve bronchial conditions and throat infections. Chewing the fresh leaves is said to relieve an inflamed throat. When rubbed on the skin, thyme relieves insect bites and stings and is also good for muscular and rheumatic pain. Thyme extract added to the bath water is a stimulant. Rosemary was used in ancient times to improve memory. Leaves and branches collected during the summer after flowering is over should be dried in a shady place. It is good for headaches when drunk as an infusion or rubbed on the head as an essential oil. It also stimulates blood circulation, improving concentration and memory and encouraging hair growth. It is also used in the treatment of epilepsy, long-term stress and moderate depression. Camomile flowers harvested in summer have been used for centuries for relieving all forms of peptic discomfort and a wide range of other disorders such as easing menstrual cramps, healing wounds, relieving pain and skin disorders. Compresses of camomile flowers have antiseptic and soothing properties for skin conditions. Drinking camomile infusions relieves inflamed gums. Infusions of sage leaves that have been harvested in summer relieve inflammations of the throat and can be used as a gargle for mouth ulcers and inflamed gums. Sage is also recommended for mild diarrhea, to stimulate hormonal activity and to facilitate menstrual flow. All parts of the Greek mountain tea plant can be used apart from the root. It is an excellent aid to digestion, relief of the common cold and as a tonic and diuretic. By adding cinnamon and honey, it relieves coughing. Dittany has been a valuable medicinal plant since ancient times in Crete, used by women to help stabilize their menstruation and to facilitate childbirth. As an infusion, it eases headache, neuralgia, stomach problems and relieves spasms. As a tincture, it is used in a solution and drunk to relieve headache and liver problems, skin infections and carbuncles. As a powder, it has antiseptic properties and helps heal wounds. And one of the most effective tinctures for use in solution (one tablespoon in about three centimeters of water) as a gargle for sore throats is that of Calendula officinalis (calendula). Generally, leaves and blooms of herbs are dried, but other parts of the plant can also be also processed. Their healing properties are obtained by means of infusion and extraction. Extraction involves simmering small pieces of the hardiest plant parts, fresh or dried, in water. Infusion, the simplest way to process the more delicate parts of the plants, such as the leaves, is achieved by steeping the parts in water that has been boiled, as in the preparation of tea. Private herb gardens come in all sizes from a row of pots on a windowsill to the beautiful formal «physic» or medicinal herb gardens that were a regular feature of medieval monasteries, the earliest known dating from the ninth century in Switzerland. A cloister with a physic garden was often situated next to the infirmary. Many of these were works of art in themselves, some of them incorporating roses and other aromatic flowering plants. A courtyard or part of a balcony is perfect for establishing a herb garden of one’s own. Herbs do well in Greece as most love hot sun and can thrive on little water and in poor soils. An excellent source is «Creative Herb Gardening» by Geraldene Holt (Conran Octopus 1993), who also draws attention to advice on herbs from a «higher» source. According to Ecclesiasticus: «The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth, and he that is wise will not abhor them.» Greek books on the environment The Sixth Exhibition of Greek Books on the Environment opens at the Goulandris Natural History Museum in Kifissia this weekend. Over 40 publishers, representatives of environmental organizations and producers of organic food will be exhibiting and selling their products at low prices. Authors Maira Papathanassopoulou, Maro Loizou and Maria Mamaliga will be presenting their new books. Old books and magazines donated by members of the museum will also be on sale. Goulandris Natural History Museum, 12 Levidou, Kifissia (or in the event of bad weather, at the GAIA Center, 100 Othonos, Kifissia). Tomorrow and Sunday 10.30 a.m. to 3 p.m.