I have had a long-standing obsession with Greek herbs. Plop me on a seaside cliff in the Aegean, a mountain side in the Peloponnesus, a valley in Larissa, and I am foraging around stones and pebbles for things green and flavorful, plucking wildflowers, rubbing leaves between my thumbs, and putting twigs under my nose. There are approximately 8,000 varieties of herbs native to Greece. You can be foraging for a long time. But this past year I had an herbalist’s dream come true—I trekked through Vikos Gorge in the The Vikos–Aoös National Park (Greek: Εθνικός Δρυμός Βίκου–Αώου Ethnikós Drymós Víkou–Aóou).
For a botanist, Vikos is like you’ve died and gone to heaven. Vikos-Aoos is one of the ten national parks in mainland Greece, located 19 miles or 30 kilometres north of the city of Ioannina in the northern part of the Pindus mountain range. What makes this wide 31,135 acre park, part of the Natura 2000 and UNESCO Geoparks systems, so special is the spectacular Vikos Gorge, carved by the Voidomatis river. The gorge’s main part is 12 km (7 mi) long and attains a depth of 1,000 meters (3,300 ft). The entire Vikos Gorge channel, a dry seasonal river during most time of the year, is about 38 km long. At 990m deep near Monodendri and 1350 m near its end, it is one of the deepest in the world, indeed the deepest in proportion to its width. This depth and the unique position has resulted in Vikos remaining in an almost virgin condition for centuries, giving rise to a diverse variety of ecosystems. Much like a tropical rain forest, there are niches of plants (biotopes) that layer each successive altitude of the gorge.
The other factor that makes Vikos and the surrounding area so unique is its lack of human habitation. In fact, the population of the area is about 3,700, which gives a population density of 4 inhabitants per square kilometer, compared to an average of 73.8 for Greece as a whole. Wow! That’s a lot of space for flowers and plants to grow without human interference. So in tandem, the park’s remoteness and relatively small human population, combined with the great variation of biotopes and microclimatic conditions favors the existence of a rich variety of flora, by some counts 1,700 by others 1,800 specific to the Vikos Gorge area.
Vikos Gorge is all about flower power. It is the rich existence of herbs and flowers native to the niches of this region, known as Zagori or Zagarochoria, that made it famous, especially from the 17th through the 19th century. Herbal healers known as the Vikos doctors gathered herbs endemic to Vikos Gorge for their preparations in the long tradition of folk medicine. So renowned were they that they made house calls to the nobility of northern Europe and Russia, traveling with their valises stuffed with pungent herbs and plants. Like the medieval guilds, they kept the knowledge of medicinal plants a family affair and passed on knowledge of herbal remedies from father to son and mother to daughter for many generations. They gained great fame among the Ottomans. Some even served as advisors in the courts of the Ottoman Sultans. One named Paschaloglou from Kapesovo even became a confidente of four Sultans: Abdul Hamit I, Suleiman III, Mustafa IV and Mahmut II.
During my hike through the steep slopes of the gorge, I came across horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) grow, a tree native to the countries of the Balkan peninsula that is included in the global list of species in need of protection of the U.N. In spring, color is added to the stone by snowdrops (Galanthus reginae – olgae subsp. Vernalis), Centauries (Centaurea pawlowskii) and Madonna Lilies (Lilium candidum), all flowers protected by legislation and international treaties. (Very hard to follow the law and not pluck these beauties). There are even prehistoric flowers in the gorge. Among the rarest plants, Serbian phoenix (Ramonda serbica), dates back from an earlier geological period when the climate was tropical in Europe.
One of the herbs used was the nightshade Atropa belladonna for cholic spasm.The drug atropine has been extracted from this plant which is medicinally used for this purpose to our own day. It is also said that two Vikos doctors, Pantazis Exarchou and Zonias, used fungi to treat infected wounds well before penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming. Other plants with suspected or known medicinal properties were also in their repertory and grow abundantly in the area, among them the lemon balm Melissa officinalis, St John’s Wort Hypericum perforatum, absinth Artemisia absinthium and the elder bush Sambucus nigra.
From the scientific article published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology “The tradition of medicinal plants in Zagori, Epirus (northwestern Greece)” by M Malama and M. Marselos, professors in pharmacology at the University of Ioannina, a compendium of some of the most effective medicinal plants and herbs from the region have been traced from manuscripts and old recipe books up to their present day usage among inhabitants of the 12 towns that ring the gorge.
Herbal medicine and lore follows a strong oral tradition dating back centuries in Vikos and continue to the present day. Many family-run herbal stores package herbs foraged for savoriness and healing from around the Zagorachorgia. Each keeps their own recipes and concoctions and are willing to share the knowledge with travelers. The knowledge of this folk medicine is so detailed that another study has enumerated 67 different therapeutic uses for the herbs collectively known as “mints” traded in Thessaloniki. Among them the 22 uses, already mentioned by Dioscurides, show that the utilization of “mints” as herbal medicines in the Mediterranean countries has a long tradition. (“Mints”, smells and traditional uses in Thessaloniki (Greece) and other Mediterranean countries).
Vikos Gorge is just one tiny patch of ground in the good country that is Greece. Each region and elevation has its own school of folk remedies and plant uses. This makes Greece’s herbal tradition one of the oldest and richest in the world.
Luckily for me, my family comes from a village on the remote side of a remote Cycladic island—no hospitals, no doctors, no calling 911 for an emergency. There was no pharmacy you could send your prescription to pick up after work. Everything had to be done on the spot with the native flora of the island. Each section of each plant and flower became a medical reference manual specific to treat ailments, disease, and as elixirs and tonics to improve general health. If they survived, it was because of their knowledge of folk medicine and the detailed passing down of recipes for poultices, concoctions, teas and salves. My grandmother and her grandmother before her across a long line of folk tradition used herbs and natural remedies to cure everything from the common cold to scorpion bites. My attraction to herbal cures and the fragrances of flowers and plants runs in my ancestral blood.
To see some of the organic soaps and skin products I create with the herbs and plants from my native island country, please check out my e-shop Greek Goddess Gifts
Or better yet check out my Etsy Shop: www.etsy.com/shop/GreekGirlGifts