The deceptively barren hills and mountains of Crete, the rocky landscape, thick olive groves, uncultivated plots, even the rugged coastline host a most interesting flora, a unique evolutionary crossbreed of the European, African and Asian flora. Many of the plant species endemic to Crete actually naturalized from other continents centuries ago. In particular, the Cretan flora includes 57 species native of Asia and not found anywhere else in Europe, and 231 species not encountered in mainland Greece.
In the 19th century botanist M.Rikli published a list of 28 African plant species endemic to deserts and the steppe, however 8 of those were also recorded on Crete. This explains the enthusiasm of Austrian born physician-botanist F.W. Sieber who visited Crete and later wrote, “…what impressed most was a leafless and flowerless sprig of the capparis egyptiana. On closer examination of the stem, I concluded that I was looking at a capparis shrub. I identified the Egyptian species of capparis following examination of its golden reflexed spines. This species is not found in Europe.”
In his three-volume work “Vegetation of the Mediterranean region”, M. Rikli provides a table of plant spcies encountered in five of the largest islands in the Mediterranean – Sicily, Sardenia, Cyprus, Corsica and Crete. He notes that although Crete is comparatively the smallest of the five, yet it hosts the richest flora of all with more than 2,170 species. The comparison is even more compelling on the basis of the following facts: England, although double in size than Greece, hosts only 2,133 plant species, while prewar Germany and Austria numbered 3,500 plant species.
Our information about the variety of plant species flourishing during the Minoan period on Crete is very scanty, originating mainly from archaeological excavations which yielded murals and vases with representations of fruit, trees, herbs, etc. other information comes from paleo-botanist research. However, we should take into account that all living organisms, including plant life, evolve through time. Therefore, known plant species today may be the evolutionary descendants of species that existed in varied forms in the remote past. Identification of past plant species is rather difficult, however, information about their applications can be deducted from their representations on excavated murals and artifacts. A vessel containing vegetable remains was found during excavations at the Minoan palace of Malia. Three kinds of fruits, corresponding to different plant species (cedar tree, coriander, wild fennel) were identified. Even today cedar fruits are consumed by the inhabitants of the isle of Gavdos, south of Crete. Furthermore, the rich aroma of wild fennel is much appreciated by the modern Cretan cuisine.
During the summer of 2000 new excavations at the village of Archanes by Cretan archaeologists Yiannis and Efi Sakelarakis confirmed the belief that aromatic herbs were used and traded by the Minoans. Unearthed vessels of 1 and ½ lt were probably used as containers for the kinds of herbs exported to mainland Greece and Egypt. The Minoans used the saffron crocus in their meals and in the rituals. This is testified by mural representations. We know now that the saffron crocus was intensively cultivated and used up to the 16th and 17th century. This is supported by the following extract from popular literature,”…Oh! Spaghetti with grated cheese and richly saffroned…dearest chesse pies…”. More information about the plant species of Crete comes from authors, botanists, and physicians of antiquity, e.g. Homer, Theophrastus, Discurides, Pliny, Galen, Diodorus, and Oreivasius. On the basis of ancient literature and research the following plant species were of outmost importance to the ancients: dittany, the Cretan cypress tree, palm tree, oregano, thyme and the cedar tree. Claudius Galen, the personal physician of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, reports on the unique medicinal properties of edible Cretan herbs: “Many of the herbs cultivated in the emperor’s gardens originate from Crete. Many of the greens, herbs, fruits and seeds on this island cannot be found anywhere in the world…”
However, from 5th to 15th century AD we have very little information about the flora of Crete which comes from Cretan literature, particularly from Cretan theatrical plays. From this information we can deduce that Cretans consumed considerable quantities of wild greens and vegetables: “She either harvested greens from meadows all day, or kneaded, sieved, wove till nightfall.” (Chortatsis, “Panoria”).
No other flora on earth has been investigated so thoroughly as the flora of the island of Crete. It all started in 15th century when a large number of botanists, pharmacologists, historians and travelers arrived on the island of Crete for a thorough examination of the local flora. French botanist Piere Belon recorded 96 plant species in their original local names.
By order of the king of France Luis XIV, French traveler researcher Tournefort traveled east and came to Crete wher he recorded 396 plant species. In 1974 on more French traveler, Olivier, arrived on Crete to report, in fascination, that the Cretans used the chickpea’s leaves raw in salads and fried the leaves of beans stalks in olive oil.
Dutch physician Dapper, who visited Crete in the 17th century, reported a wide range of edible herbs, greens and vegetables, among them the dittamy (dictamus) which was also chewed by goats to heal their wounds.
Source: Myrsini Lambraki “Herbs, Greens, Fruit. The Key to the Mediterranean Diet”, Third Millennium Press Ltd.