Herbs, Greens, Fruit
The Key to the Mediterranean Diet by Myrsini Lambraki


According to the Oxford dictionary herbs are all the useful plants whose leaves, roots, stems and flowers are valued as food or medicines by dint of their aroma or other characteristic. This definition applies to a wide variety of plants that are used in food, drinks, medicines, cosmetics, etc. However, in the last few centuries the term “herb” has been reserved strictly for a limited range of plants attributed with medicinal qualities and used for infusions, popular treatments, or as raw material in modern pharmacology.


The distinction of plants into herbs, vegetables, greens, and fruits is only a few centuries old. In antiquity, even up to the Middle Ages, the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Chinese and the Hindus, attributed to plants therapeutic qualities and included them in their daily diet. Plants were consumed raw or cooked and combined with fish and meat dishes. In any case, it has been proved that the above plant categories maintain their active ingredients and therapeutic qualities even when cooked.

The Cretan nutritional model includes a wide range of plants (wild greens, vegetables, fruit and seeds) known as “herbs of the kitch

en”. This qualification is used with the implication that these herbs, if consumed daily, promote health and long life. For a cook in ancient Greece or in the Middle Ages, the lettuce, saffron, bulbs, asparagus, radishes, even pomegranates and berries were in the same plant category as sage, marjoram,and dittany, although the former were not used for infusions. Extracts from ancient Greek texts prove that most greens, vegetables, fruit and herbs were attributed effective therapeutic qualities. Hesiod, for example, was urging the Athenians to consume nettles to shield themselves from common ailments for an entire year.

Centuries later, John Evelyn (1699) wrote, “It (the borage) is known to enliven the spirit of hypochondriacs and relieve the mind of people steeped in study…”. Borage was used in salads, as is the case today. Charlemagne, king of the Franks (742-814 AD) commissioned the compilation of a list of the most valued aromatic herbs and named the list “friend of the physician and the pride of the cook”. He then ordered that the herbs on that list be grown in his lush gardens.


The bonds between our ancestors and nature (mainly plants) is not only testified by volumes of specialist works and literary extracts but also by myths, as is the case with the myth of the goddess of vegetation, Flora. In his book “The Flora of Greece”, chapter “Myth and Cult”, E. Bauman provides a wonderful description of the connection between nature, gods and people: “Goddess Flora was assisted in her tasks by the Horae (or Hours) the daughters of goddess Themis and Zeus and attendants to the Sun. The Horae were the three goddesses of sea

A statue of an idol from the end of the Minoan period. This goddess is wearing a wreath of poppy heads which symbolize health and fertility.
sons and of orderliness. Zephyr, representing the west wind, brought the Spring rains that were so valuable for the awakening of nature. The Oceanids, nymphs and daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, were protectors of their father’s marine kingdom and cared for all sea and river plant life. Where the nymphs were unable to attend, there Zeus rolled his thunders and lightning from the heights of Olympus, thus wetting fields and meadows with rain. Artemis (Diana), the goddess of the hunt and the moon, would cover plants with evening frost, while her brother Apollo showered plants with the invigorating rays of the sun…”

Modern epidemiologists, physicians, and nutrition experts believe that herbs, wild greens and fresh fruits native to the Mediterranean are “loaded” with solar energy. The sun over the Mediterranean seems to exert a most beneficial influence on all edible plants with subsequent effects on human health.

Myths and legends concerning plants and their development are no accident but result from the Greeks’ deep knowledge of their natural resources. The Greeks were mostly vegetarians with their daily diet consisting mainly of cereals, legumes, vegetables, wild greens, roots, fruit and fish. For the Greeks the term vegetables was reserved for all greens while the term herbs was reserved for spices. This distinction is currently employed today in various parts of Macedonia and Epeirous. Our ancestors, as well as the ancient Romans, were able to distinguish over 1000 plant species and, therefore, had compiled scores of detailed descriptions concerning their particular qualities, as well as their kitchen and medicinal applications. Among the most prolific experts in botanical matters were Dioscurides. Theophrastus, Hippocrates, Antiphanes, Galinus (Galen), and Pliny.

Thephrastus, who had set up a pilot farm in Athens, provides handy instructions for cultivating and growing fruit-bearing trees, e.g. fig trees, olive trees, almond trees and pot plants! Even Homer, whose monumental work does not make detailed gastronomic references, makes specific references to 36 plant and tree species in his Iliad and 44 in his Odyssey. Among those plants cited are the crocus,

lentisk, leek, moss, wild carrot, prickly bush, mallow and poppy.

Equally significant are the gastronomic accounts bequeathed to us by Athenaeus (170-230 AD) in “Deipnosophists”. In his work Athenaeus talks about the emollient qualities of the mallow, the sub-acid taste of the sorrel, the vegetable texture of the nettle, the aphrodisiac qualities of bulbs, while there are also references to asparagus, fennel, caper, oregano, sage, laurel, rosemary, fig tree, grapes and pomegranates.

Households in ancient Athens maintained supplies of salt, oregano, vinegar, thyme, sesame, raisins, caper, eggs, salted fish, cress, figs, olives, olive oil, etc. An extract from comic poet “Alexi” says, “Place ground oregano at the bottom of the dish and use molasses for colour”.

During the Byzantine period herbs and vegetables were associated with lower the classes social, hence they were rarely served at the dinner tables of the upper class, kings and gourmets. On the other hand, this lowly and inexpensive diet was much appreciated by the common folk, poor and clergy. Harvesting/collection and supplying of herbs and vegetables were highly systematized by the clergy who observed strict fasting rules for almost 180 days during a year.

Through centuries of trial and error activities primitive man became aware of the medicinal qualities of plants and herbs. He identified herbs that could sooth a range of pains and cure diseases or prevent others. A lot of herbs/plants used for their medicinal qualities today, for example the sage, cedar tree, and the leaves of the olive tree, were known to the Egyptians and found inscribed in papyrus scrolls.

Aristotle wrote that when the wild goat was wounded it would eat the Cretan dittany in order to heal itself.
For centuries the medicinal applications of herbs/plants were mainly confined to the treatment of wounds, since anything pathological was attributed to acts of gods. This attitude and practice changed with Hippocrates (460-370 BC), the famous Greek physician and father of medicine from the isle of Kos. His works that survived through the centuries include references to 237 plant species classified on the basis of their medicinal qualities. According to Hippocrates, saffron is used for wound cleansing, mallow for cataplasms, oregano to aid menstruation, pomegranate for ailments of the liver, sage for uterus infections and gastrointestinal diseases. Cretan dittany to aid labouring women and on wounds, quince to alleviate pains of the uterus, purslane as a axative, and basil as an antiemetic.

In his work, “On the History of Plants”, Theophrastus, the Greek philosopher and scientist (372-287 BC) set the foundations for modern botany. He provides invaluable information concerning the pharmaceutical and aromatic qualities of a wide range of plants. Centuries later botany found its main exponent in the person of Dioscurides (c.512 AD). His knowledge of plants/herbs are astonishing, even to modern standards. In his book “De material medica”, Dioscurides identified more than 500 plant species. Of note is the fact that 40 of these are currently used in pharmacology. The bulk of our knowledge of plants and herbs in ancient Greece comes from the works of Theophrastus and Dioscurides.

At a later time Greek compilations of herbs and plants were systematized by Claudius Galinus (Galen, 131-109 AD), Greek physician and medical writer from Pergamum, Asia Minor. He recorded 304 medicines that were produced from herbs, wild greens, trees and fruits.


Vegetable oils scented with herbs and spices were extensively used in antiquity, but we have no knowledge of their application in the kitchen. We do know, however, that owing to their inherent qualities, vegetable oils were used for body care. Selected herbs were added to vegetable oils to lend them valuable curative, styptic and antioxidant qualities.

During the reign of Byzantine emperor Constantine “the purple-born”, legist Cassianos Vassos is credited with a number of recipes for scented olive oil. Some of these recipes provide instructions for improving medium and low quality olive oils with the addition of aromatic herbs. For example, rancid olive oil improves with the addition of dill and foul-smelling olive oil with the addition of coriander or raisins. A popular practice in the villages of the province of Pediada, Crete, was to add 2-3 oregano sprigs in large earthenware jars used as olive oil containers.

There has been a lot of research in the plant kingdom for substances with antioxidant qualities, particularly in herbs and aromatic plants, the main sources of antioxidants. Independent investigation results concur on the significant antioxidant qualities of rosemary and oregano.

In 1952 Chipault noted that consumption of salted meat should be combined with infusions of rosemary, sage, and thyme. In addition, he claims that oregano combined with mayonnaise acquires excellent antioxidant properties. Modern research is under way by the Aristotelian University of Athens with regard to the stability of olive oils mixed with rosemary, oregano, garlic and thyme.


The proper harvesting of wild herbs is determined by the particular location of the plants as well as their subsequent culinary application. In particular,

- Leaves, shoots and blossomed tops should be harvested during the afternoon hours when most of the plants’ active substances accumulate in those sections. Similarly, roots and bulbs should be collected in autumn or spring, and fruits, flowers early in the morning all year round.

- Never harvest plants/herbs, if you are not sure whether they are edible.

- Herbs and wild greens growing on roadsides or curbs are not suitable for consumption.

- Harvesting during the months of March and April requires caution since during that period most farmers spray their land with hazardous pesticides.

- Harvest only the green and healthier looking herbs/plants.

- Do not uproot herbs/plants but trim the tender parts to give plants/herbs the opportunity to grow again.

- Harvest only the quantities you consider enough to last you for 5-6 days. Herbs and plants loose their precious qualities after this period.

- Never leave plants/herbs in nylon/plastic bags, closed spaces, under direct sun light or in the trunk of your vehicle.


- If you live in the country, but do not have the knowledge required to identify specific herbs and wild plants, or the time to harvest them yourselves, look for them in your local market or greengrocer.

- It is advisable to find out the origin of the herbs and plants you intend to buy.

- Never purchase herbs/plants with obvious damage on leaves or fruits.

Next: Basil and Mint