May/June 2008

Beautiful Annuals

The annual flowers are now brightening up waste ground, roadsides and field edges. One that I love for its colours is Purple Vipers Bygloss (Echuim plantagineum). It is a common Mediterranean plant, flowering from April to July. The plant is hairy, with oval lower leaves. These often wither away by flowering time, leaving an erect main stem that bears tubular flowers in clusters at the end of short side stems. The flowers are wonderful, because they change colour as they develop from red to purple to pink. All these colours on one plant make it glow amongst the rough grass at the edge of the road.

BorageIn the same family of plants is Borage (Borago officinalis). This distinctive bristly plant produces bright blue star-shaped flowers with a central cone of black anthers from April to September. It is indigenous to the Mediterranean, but has now spread to other parts of Europe. It is not just pretty, it is also useful. The leaves and flowers are edible. They smell and taste like fresh cucumber. The young leaves are rich in vitamin C and can be added to salads. The flowers are used for decoration ­ either fresh in fruit and wine drinks or candied on desserts. In Crete they use the first tender shoots in salads, where it is called “Borantza” or “Aparantza”. In herbal medicine the flowering stems are used to make an infusion to treat urinary infections, bronchitis and rheumatism. This is because the plant contains a mild diuretic (i.e. it makes you pass water), a diaphoretic (i.e. it makes you sweat) and an anti-inflammatory. So what a useful plant, and the bees love it!

corn poppyThe Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) hardly needs description. Everyone recognises its long stems with drooping flower buds that open up into a scarlet, papery four-petalled flower. Here it starts flowering in April, and goes on until July. The poppy has been a weed of cereal crops since human beings took up agriculture ­ hence its common English name. In ancient times the growth of the crop was thought to depend on poppies. The Ancient Greeks attributed the corn poppy to Aphrodite in her role as goddess of vegetation. To the Romans it was the flower of Ceres, the goddess of corn. Parts of the plant are edible. Cretans use the leaves and tender shoots as part of their “horta” to bake in pies, and call it “Koutsounada” or “Paparouna”. Poppy seeds have a nice nutty flavour and are used in parts of Europe to sprinkle on the top of bread and cakes. But actually the whole plant is slightly poisonous to grazing animals if they eat it in large quantities. The flower petals contain a mild sedative and expectorant. Herbalists use them to treat irritating coughs and bronchitis.

crown daisyAnother widespread annual flower that you cannot miss, is Crown Daisy (Chrysanthemum coronaria). Coronarius in Latin means “used for making wreaths and garlands”. You can just imagine those old Greeks and Romans dancing round with wreath or two of these on their heads!

In half decent soil this plant can grow up to 80 cm tall. It produces lots of flowers above the feathery foliage, with a bright yellow or tipped with white. It is also edible - the stalks used to be eaten as a pot herb. Cretans still use the tender shoots as a vegetable, which can be eaten raw or steamed, and call it “Mantilida”.

It did have another use. The 17th century English botanist John Goodyer says the plant will protect against “women witches and enchantment”. Now that is handy to know!

My last useful and beautiful annual is White Mustard (Sinapis alba). This is another native Mediterranean wild plant ­ but it is now used in its cultivated form all over Europe for oil, fodder and mustard production. The plant has smooth, toothed leaves and small yellow flowers. Sinapis specus flowers grow in a raceme, that is they grow on little stalks surrounding a common stem. Each little flower has only four petals and sepals that are spread out horizontally below the flower. It is very distinctive and easy to see if you look carefully. The fruit is what botanists call a siliqua. This is a sort of pod, much longer than it is broad. The mustard siliqua has a pointed tip that is curved like a tiny scimitar. Cretans call the wild plant “Lapsana” or “Kapsovlastako”. They steam the tender shoots and leaves, to eat as a vegetable. In herbal medicine the seeds are ground, made into a paste and warmed, which forms a "mustard plaster" which is familiar to those who read 18th and 19th century novels. It is used as a compress to ease aches and pains.

All these plants can now be seen flowering everywhere in Crete. But they are threatened by modern farming practice. Many old fields have been turned over to olive trees, as the EU subsidy makes this more profitable. The farmers often use herbicides instead of ploughing to tidy up under the trees in early summer, just as these plants are flowering. If they are unable to set seed they will become fewer and fewer as time goes on. Even when the olive groves are ploughed, the ground is being progressively taken over by Bermuda buttercup (Oxalis pescaprae), an invasive plant introduced from Africa. Its tiny bulbs are easily scattered by plough and it takes over whole areas, smothering other plants. However some Cretans are aware of this, and the EU is trying to change its agricultural policy. So let us all encourage people to appreciate and preserve those beautiful and useful plants, the “common” annuals.

1. The Illustrated Book of Herbs, Their Medical and Culinary Uses. Ed. Sarah Bunny (1984). Octopus Books.
2. The Oxford Book of Food Plants. Harrison, Macefeld and Wallace (1969). Oxford University Press.
3. Flowers of Greece and Aegean. Hurley and Taylor (1977). Chatts and Windus.
4. The Flowers of Crete (English Edition). Marina Clauser (2000). Casa Editrica Bonechu.
5. Wild Edible Plants of Crete (Bilingual Edition). Kleonikos G. Stavridakis (2006). Rethymno Inc.

Greek News

Greece is a country on the south eastern edge of the European Union. It has an enormous coastline and many islands, so is often a point of entry for immigrants ­ both economic migrants and refugees. Unfortunately the reception that awaits immigrants has been much on the news lately.

It all started with a report last November from a German organization called Pro Asyl. This accused Greek coastguards of "systematically abusing newly-arrived refugees".

This year a Norwegian group for asylum seekers conducted an investigation in which they interviewed refugees to Greece. They found that asylum seekers were first put in jail, sometimes beaten up by police and when released had nowhere to go. The poor folk usually ended up sleeping on the streets or park benches. According to EU law, a refugee should be returned to the country where they first arrived to be processed. However after this report, the Norwegian government suspended the return of refugees to Greece.

The United Nations Refugee Agency also criticized Greek policy of “automatically detaining” refugees on arrival and conducting interviews in Greek only, so the poor things hardly knew what was going on. Joining in the chorus of disapproval, is the European Council for Refugees and Exiles and Amnesty International. Even some of their own MP’s have criticised the Greek government. The records show that out of over 25,000 applications for asylum in Greece only 8 have been granted! These MP’s have intervened personally in some cases, and say that there is “a lack of political will” to revise Greek immigration policy. Poor old Greece, it is not at all popular! Holland and Germany are also now considering not returning refugees to Greece.

Yet Greece needs immigrants. It has a large agricultural base, and some of the crop harvests are very labour intensive. According to research conducted by Professor Kasimis at the Agricultural University of Athens, immigrant labourers are 90% of all hired hands on Greek farms. But these economic migrants are not doing much better than the asylum seekers. Many have no official papers and are exploited by some farmers. Raids on suspected farms found workers being housed in makeshift camps with no electricity or running water, and being paid less than the minimum wage.

Even if migrants have official papers, they often have difficulty renewing their residency permits because of excessive bureaucracy and downright inefficiency. The Greek Ombudsman found the immigration department in Attica has the worst record of bad administration of all government departments!

Since coming to live in Crete, I have come face to face with problems about immigration in a way I have never expected before. Two years ago 200 Sudanese, mostly men, arrived in a boat in our bay with nothing much more than the clothes they stood up in. This year another crowd of young men arrived at the beginning of the olive harvest, this time from Bulgaria. None of these people wanted to scrounge off the state. They were all willing and able to work. But with such large numbers coming into a small community there was not enough work for them to do.

The young Bulgarian men stood in the town square, often in the cold and the rain, hoping for a farmer to pick them for work. But many were not successful. With no money, they had to shelter where they could. There is a derelict hotel on the road leading to our village. I don’t know if it still has a water supply, but there is certainly no electricity. About a hundred of these men took up residence there. I saw them walking up the road with pieces of cardboard from the bins to cover floors and broken windows. It must have been miserable there.

I have seen the policemen who come to deal with immigrants. They are not at all like our friendly local police. They arrive in force in big four wheel drive vehicles. They have guns at their hips and loads of attitude. I have seen the town square clear in two minutes flat when one of these vehicles is spotted!

Yet in spite of uncaring officialdom, the kindness and generosity of local people is heartwarming. Two years ago the old people’s home revved up their kitchens to feed the Sudanese migrants every day. This year I know a local restaurant owner, who raided his storeroom for packets of pasta and rice to hand out to the men on the square. We saw middle aged Greek ladies arrive with big pots of stew and leaves of bread at lunchtime, to feed the men who had no work that day. A friend of mine was in the bakers when one of these young men came in to ask what he could buy for one euro, which was all he had that day. The lady serving gave him half a dozen items that were worth ten times as much. So come on Greek government, revise your policies ­ make them as kind as your ordinary people and then no-one can criticise you!

On a lighter note ­ a very important event took place in Athens on the first weekend in May. It was the Second International Tattoo Convention. Categories for prizes were best colour tattoo, best large tattoo, best black and grey tattoo and best tattoo of show. You can just imagine all those trouser legs rolled up, all those chests bared! Unfortunately the report did not say what the prizes were. Free tattoos perhaps?

Seasonal Produce

In the shops now are lovely, juicy strawberries. Some early ones appear in April, but they are grown in polytunnels. May is the month when they are abundant. I have already had my own first small crop from the garden. The drier climate means I don’t lose so many of them to those to those slimy little marauders, the slugs and snails.

The strawberry plant is a perennial herb that can propagate it self by runners or seeds.

strawberryUnusually, strawberry seeds are on the outside of the fruit. The original strawberry species was introduced to Europe from the Eastern states of North American so it was called “Fragaria virginiana.” It wasn’t until a century later that a second species came to Europe from the pacific Coast of North and South America. It was named “Fragaria chiloensis”, and instead of red fruit it had pink or white berries. In this species both male and female were needed to produce fruit. Because there had been mountains between these two species they had never come together, but once breeders in Europe had both of them from 1800 onwards, they started to produce hybrid forms. The most famous of these was “Royal Sovereign” bred in 1892. This is the only old variety available today. Unfortunately strawberries are very susceptible to virus disease transmitted by aphids. Nineteenth century plant breeders were unaware or this, so many older hybrids have died out.

Of the varieties grown today ­ the original strawberry form America is still grown under the name of “Little Scarlet”. In England the Cambridge hybrids “Cambridge Vigour” are widely grown commercially. There is also a group of varieties known as perpetuals. They produce fruit successively but do not grow runners. This type of strawberries seems to be the one available from nurseries here. If you grow strawberries remember they surface root, so need nutritious soil and plenty of moisture to crop well. The gardening books recommend that you cut back the old foliage, when the plants have finished fruiting, to get rid of insect pests that can damage new growth.

Strawberries contain some iron and loads of vitamin C. Because vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron, they are excellent for people with anaemia. They are also good for those who suffer from arthritis, as they help the body get rid of uric acid. Uric acid irritates already inflamed joints and causes an excruciatingly painful form of arthritis called gout. Like a lot of fruit, strawberries contain antioxidants and pectin. Pectin not only helps your jam set, but also eliminates excess cholesterol from the body, and helps prevent heart and arterial disease. Isn’t it nice that something so yummy is also good for you?

The Trouble With Greek

Similar sounding Greek words trip up many foreigners, whether they live in Greece or elsewhere. A friend of ours who is a nurse in the UK, works as the sister in charge of a ward for people having rehabilitation after strokes. An elderly Greek gentleman was admitted to her ward, and she thought she would make him feel more at home by using a bit of Greek she had learnt on holiday.

Every morning when she came on duty, she would go to this man’s bed and say cheerfully “Kalimari” ­ in the fond belief that she was saying “Good morning”. After a couple of weeks a new staff nurse joined the ward team, and heard my friend give her cheery morning greeting. She said “Sister, why do you keep saying 'squid' to that man?” My poor friend realized that she should have been saying “Kalimera”!

Greek Orthodox Saint Of The Month

May 5th is the day that Saint Eirini (Irene) is celebrated. There are several Christian saints called Irene, so it is a bit confusing. However the Greek orthodox calendar says that the full title of the lady celebrated on May 5th is Irene, the Great Martyr of Thessalonica.

Saint EiriniApparently she lived in Salonica, as it was then called, in about the third century AD. Macedonia, the area where Salonica was situated, had become part of the Roman Empire in 146 BC. Salonica was chosen as the provincial capital by the Romans because of its strategic position by the sea.

St. Paul did visit Salonica twice and established a Christian church there, but it was not very significant. In 303 AD the Emperor Diocletian issued a prohibition on Christian Scriptures. Saint Irene was caught in possession of these scriptures and when told to deny her faith, refused.

She was only young and still a virgin. The provincial governor, a chap called Dulcitus, thought he might take her down a peg or two by confining her in a brothel. Here she was stripped naked and chained up.

However a miracle happened ­ none of the brothel customers touched her and she remained virginal and unrepentant. Of course after that she had to be executed.

Some versions of the story she was burned to death, others that she was shot full of arrows. I tend to think it was the latter as her prayer for the day talks about spilt blood. Poor old Saint Irene. But she lives today in all those Greek girls called Eirini.