“Sage tea with garlic and honey was our penicillin,” explains my friend Yiorgos Stenos, 84, in a conversation about the role that herbs play in the legendary longevity of people on Ikaria. Indeed, one of the great longevity secrets of the Ikarians has to do with the way they use the dozens of herbs that grow wild on the island.
Fresh and dried herbs season countless recipes, of course, on Ikaria as in all of Greek cooking, but dried herbs have a double life. They are also the stuff of Ikaria’s folk pharmacopoeia, and their therapeutic values are part of the core of local knowledge passed down from one generation to the next.
Ikaria’s denizens pick herbs when they are fresh in the spring and summer and dry them at home, typically by hanging them upside down in a shady, breezy place. Then, once dried, they keep them in the larder as seasoning but also to turn into infusions in order to combat all sorts of ailments. Dried herbs are on hand in almost every Ikarian home.
Sage, oregano, rosemary, mint, fennel, chamomile, sideritis (mountain tea), and more are among the most popular and common herbs on Ikaria. As teas, all these herbal infusions act as mild diuretics. That means they help lower blood pressure, one reason why cardiovascular disease rates are so low on the island. Many of these herbal teas are also loaded with antioxidants.
Some, like pennyroyal and other mints, promote gum health and soothe stomach aches. Rosemary promotes heart health, combats arthritis and even gout.
To make an infusion of herbs the way Ikarians do, place a teaspoon or two of dried herbs in a tea strainer and pour boiling water on top. Cover and let the herbs steep for 10 minutes. You can sweeten these infusions with honey.
Here are a few of the most common herbal tea remedies:
– Chamomile: Ikarian moms give chamomile tea to babies with colic and to help treat insomnia. We pick it in the spring. The whole island smells faintly of its apple-like perfume. It is also made into a poultice for eye inflammations.
– The mint family: – Spearmint: dried it is drunk for upset stomachs. – Peppermint: a claming tea and good for menstrual cramps. Older Ikarians say it is good for men with prostate issues, too. – Pennyroyal: drunk to soothe colds and fly symptoms. It is said to stimulate the menstrual cycle, and pregnant women should not drink it.
– Oregano: great for indigestion – Rosemary: It’s a great tonic and it is antiseptic. It’s also great as a shampoo (makes hair very shiny).
– Sage: Ikarians swear by sage for a large number of ailments, mainly though as a curative for colds.
– Savory: Helps the body detox; said to be good for arthritis.
– Thyme: Said to help burn fat! Ikarians drink it to combat the occasional blues, too.
– Borage: The leaves and seeds are drunk by nursing mothers – they are said to help the onset of milk. It’s also a general detoxifyer and a salve for colds and bronchitis.
– Elder. A fly and mosquito repellent! The berries are a good source of vitamins A and C and are a natural laxative.
– St. John’s Wort: The Ikarians infuse olive oil with St. John’s Wart when the flowers are in bloom in the late spring. The oil turns blood red. It’s a great salve for topical wounds, scratches, rashes and any skin ailment. It works wonders. I’ve seen it with my own eyes do so!