Thursday, 27 July 2017


“Alas, poor me, that the wounds of love cannot be healed by herbs!” – Ovid 

Origanum dictamnus (dittany of Crete, Cretan dittany or hop marjoram), known in Greek as δίκταμο (díktamo, cf. “dittany”) or in Cretan dialect έρωντας (erondas, “love”), is a tender perennial plant in the Lamiaceae family that grows 20–30 cm high. It is a healing, therapeutic and aromatic plant that only grows wild on the mountainsides and gorges of the Greek island of Crete, Greece. 

Dittany of Crete is widely used for food flavouring and medicinal purposes, and is also found as an ornamental plant in gardens. This small, lanate shrub is easily recognised by the distinctive soft, woolly covering of white-grey hair on its stems and round green leaves, giving it a velvety texture. Tiny rose-pink flowers surrounded by brighter purple-pink bracts add an exuberant splash of colour to the plant in summer and autumn. Dittany is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plant Species 1997. 

Origanum dictamnus is a many branched plant with discoid to ovate, grey-green leaves that are sited in pairs opposite each other. The slender arching stems and lanate leaves are covered in a velvety white down and are 13–25 mm in size. The flowers are pale pink to purple and have a deep lilac corolla with many deep pink-coloured overlapping bracts. The colourful flowers forming a cascade of elongated clusters are in bloom in the summer months and are quite a pretty sight in the rocky mountains of their native land. The flowers are hermaphrodite, meaning they have both male and female organs, and are pollinated by bees attracted to their scent and bright colour. The primary ingredients of the herb’s essential oil are carvacrol (68.96%), β-phellandrene (18.34%) and p-cymene (4.68%).

The herb symbolises love and is reputed to be an aphrodisiac. Traditionally, only the most ardent young lovers would scramble on mountainsides and go into the deep gorges of Crete gathering bunches of the pink blooms to present as love tokens. There are numerous deaths reported throughout the centuries by collectors of this magical herb. Even in recent times, the collection of dittany of Crete was a very dangerous occupation for the men who risked life and limb to climb precarious rock faces where the plant grows wild in the mountains of Crete. They were named erondádhes (“love-seekers”) and were considered very brave and passionate men to go to such dangerous lengths to collect the herb.

Dittany of Crete has always been highly prized; it is gathered while in bloom in the summer months, and is exported for use in pharmaceuticals, perfumery and to flavour drinks such as vermouth and absinthe. In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates prescribed plant cures to aid all manner of ailments, and considered dittany of Crete useful for stomach aches and complaints of the digestive system and as a poultice for healing wounds, as well as inducing menstruation.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work “The History of Animals” (612a4) wrote: “Wild goats in Crete are said, when wounded by arrow, to go in search of dittany, which is supposed to have the property of ejecting arrows in the body.” The Greek scholar and philosopher Theophrastus agreed with Aristotle about the healing properties of dittany of Crete. In his work “Enquiry into Plants”, he noted that dittany was peculiar to Crete, and that it was: “Said to be true, that, if goats eat it when they have been shot, it rids them of the arrow.” (9.16.1).

Other scholars of Ancient Greece and later times have made reference to dittany, but probably referred to Dictamnus albus, known as false, or white, dittany. Today, the wild, naturally grown dittany of Crete is classed as “rare” and is protected by European law so it does not become extinct. Cultivation of the herb now centres on Embaros and the surrounding villages, south of Heraklion, Crete, and the product used to make herbal tea and for use in natural beauty preparations. It is used as a flavouring in sweet wine, its dried leaves mulled in the warm liquid. It is used as one of the flavourings in vermouth and Benedictine liqueur.

In Book XII.411-415 of Virgil’s “Aeneid”, Venus heals the wounded Aeneas with dittany: “Hereupon Venus, smitten by her son’s cruel pain, with a mother’s care plucks from Cretan Ida a dittany stalk, clothed with downy leaves and purple flowers; not unknown is that herb to wild goats, when winged arrows have lodged in their flanks.” In Canto XI of Tasso’s “Jerusalem Delivered” the crusader leader, Godfrey, is healed by means of a dittany salve. This scene is a reference to Virgil’s as the dittany used to heal Godfrey is fetched from Mount Ida and reference is also made to the idea that goats eat dittany when wounded.

In the language of flowers, a sprig of non-flowering dittany carries the message: “Heal my wounds”; while a flowering sprig means: “I am in love with you and only you can heal the wounds of my heart.”

This post is part of the Floral Friday Fotos meme.

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