One of the most special things that welcome the visitor to Amorgos is the strong fragrance of herbs. The Amorgian herbs are an apparent phenomenon and one reason is that there have been people working professionally, picking and distributing them, for more than the last twenty years.
But is there something special about the Amorgian herbs? I let the question go to Vangelis Vassalos who, together with his wife Eleni, is running the IAMA studio for alternative therapies where they also sell herbs they collect from the island. He answers: “Well, there is a great diversity of plants in the Cyclades and even in closely neighbouring islands one can find different species. According to the Flora Hellenica Database, the largest and most reliable database for the Greek flora, there are 1670 species and subspecies in the Cyclades and of these Amorgos hosts around 600 species, which is 28 % of the Cycladic flora.” How is it that there is such a great variety of species on this small island? “It may be a narrow island but it is long with relatively high altitude and very hilly, so it offers plenty of surface area for its flora. Apart from the ground morphology there are also the geological types and arrangements that aid this biovariety.”
Birgitte Roth (certificated phytotherapist, now working with herbs on Lefkada) was doing the same kind of work on Amorgos from 1986 until 1999. She sent some samples of herbs to a botanical laboratory to find out if there were any traces of radioactivity of which there were not. The tests also proved a very high content of essential oils – as high as 97 % (a normal percentage of essential oils is around 67%). This was explained by her totally natural way of drying the herbs, where they were not completely dry in comparison to the more common way of drying in ovens. It was also understood that another reason was that Birgitte was picking according to the anthroposophist philosophy and the Maria Thun calendar which is following the phases of the moon and the constellations of the planets. What else explains this high quality? Well, the soil, the sun, the winds… The sage, one of the most common and widely spread wild herbs on Amorgos is, according to Brigitte, extraordinarily intense in flavour and smell, not to be found alike anywhere else.
Vangelis Vassalos says the aromatic plants are more scented than in other places and the medicinal plants more potent. He refers to the apparently strong energy fields via the earth currents (lay lines), a strong geomagnetism that the island exhibits, which is felt by many locals and visitors but is difficult to explain. “Natura 2000” is an ecological network of special areas set up by EU in its seeking to ensure biodiversity by conserving natural habitats and wild fauna and flora. One area in this European network is the northeast part of Amorgos. Some of the rare and protected species of flora defined by “Natura 2000”, are Galium amorginum, Asperula tournefortii, Helichrysum amorginum (Stathouri), Helichrysum orientale, Origanum tournefortii (kefalohorto) and Eryngium amorginum. Herbs can be used as infusion or decoction which is water based, as tincture which is based on alcohol, as ingredient in syrups, as ointment for external use, in baths, as a compressor and in its essential oil form. The herbs can be used for colds and flues, for digestive problems, nausea, headaches, stress, sleeping disorders and many other problems and illnesses.
This knowledge was common and widely spread in the old times but now slowly declining together with the old generation. The relationship between man and nature, as in many places, is not in the same balance anymore and on Amorgos this is seen, for example, on how some of the local people have become dependent on the EU subsidies on breeding goats. This tends to become out of proportion, which is a danger to the flora since the goats eat basically everything that is green. Botanic researchers on the island claim that there are no species under threat of extinction yet. The flora is still very rich and it is more likely that there are new species around. This is helped by the absence of the use of pesticides on the island. There are also steep cliffs that goats cannot reach and strong winds and insects help to maintain the presence of this great variety of herbs. However the folk medical tradition is still alive on Amorgos and in the IAMA (which is the Greek word for remedy), Vangelis and Eleni try to continue exploring this old wisdom of aromatic-medicinal plant use, also known as phytotherapy when it is applied to natural health or natural cosmetics. There is a trend in general in the western world towards the old traditional and natural ways for health and wellbeing especially as its efficiency is now confirmed scientifically. What remains is to see a wiser combination and blending with the classical allopathic medicinal approaches. The great advantage we have on Amorgos for practicing phytotherapy is the very fine quality of raw materials (the herbs) and the traditions. Some of the most common wild herbs picked on the island are thyme, savory, wild oregano, wormwort (absinth), sage, fennel, st. Johns ’ wort , bramble, mallow, nettle, chamomile, clematis, germander and hyssop. Working with the herbs in an organized manner has a positive impact on the island in several ways: The old knowledge on the use of herbs will be preserved; the locals get interested and start to remember and trust these natural treasures again. It also provides an alternative tourist product by attracting visitors in the low season (guided walks of botanical interest are offered especially in the springtime) and by offering a local, natural and pure product in the form of dried herbs for seasoning or for teas as well as a few creams.
Article from Vangelis Vassalos in IRIS center for alternative holidays in Amorgos : http://iris.amorgos.net