Monday, May 9, 2011

Origanum dictamnus - Dittany of Crete

Origanum dictamnus - Dittany of Crete, also known as Diktamo, Eronda, Wintersweet, Cretan Dittany, Hop Majoram, and Wild Marjoram. Origanum most likely derives from two Greek words, meaning joy and mountains. Dictamnus refers to Dikti, the mountain where Zeus was born and thamnos translates as shrub.

Origanum dictamnus is a tender perennial plant that grows wild on the mountainsides and gorges of the Greek island of Crete. It is a many branched plant growing about 6-12 in, with oval, grey-green leaves that are in pairs opposite each other. The slender arching stems and leaves are covered in a velvety white down. The flowers are pale pink to purple and have a deep lilac corolla with many deep pink colored overlapping bracts. The colourful flowers form a cascade of elongated clusters when in bloom during the summer months. The flowers are hermaphrodite and are pollinated by bees attracted to their scent and bright color.

Dittany has been used as an antirheumatic, oxytocic, stomachic and vulnerary, though these uses appear to be obsolete in modern herbalism. On the Island of Crete it is considered the most effective local remedy for almost everything (sore throat, cough, menstrual pains, aching stomach, hypertensive, diuretic, helps at child birth, cures wounds, etc.) It is sold in almost every local market to be sipped as a herbal tea.

Dittany's round, soft fuzzy gray leaves beautifully show off the 6 to 8 inch flower stalks that appear in summer.  It makes a nice addition to rock gardens or ornamental beds that are on the dry side, the flowers are popular with hummingbirds and make great additions to dried flower arrangements. Dittany of Crete has always been highly prized and is gathered while in bloom in the summer months and is exported for use in pharmaceuticals, perfumery and to flavor salads and drinks such as vermouth and absinthe. It is also one of the herbs in Benedictine liquer.  It has a pleasant aromatic flavor, especially when mixed with parsley, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper. The flowering tops are dried and brewed into a herb tea.

Dittany of Crete is said to have been given to Crete by the Greek god Zeus as thanks for his upbringing there and was used by the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite. The Greek goddess Aphrodite is also linked to Dittany as she used it to treat her wounded son, Aeneas, during the Trojan War.  Artemis also has connections with Dittany and was often crowned with a wreath of Dittany on her statues in temples to honour her. An earlier Minoan goddess Diktynna gave her name to the herb.

Said to be an aphrodisiac and symbol of love, newlyweds drank Dittany of Crete in wine to ensure a good and healthy sex life in their marriage. Young men climbed the mountains and deep gorges of Crete, gathering the pink blossoms to present to their lovers. Numerous deaths of these collectors were reported throughout the centuries. Even in recent times, the collection of wild Dittany is very dangerous, men prove their love by risking life and limb to climb precarious rock faces where the plant grows. One name for Dittany is Eronda, which means love, and the men who attempt this feat of extreme passion are referred to as 'Erondades' (love seekers).

It was believed the Minoans knew the benefits of Dittany and used it for curing ailments and for beautifying their skin and hair. Hippocrates prescribed Dittany of Crete as useful for stomach aches and complaints of the digestive system and as a poultice for healing wounds, as well as inducing menstruation. Aristotle, in his work 'The History of Animals' wrote: "Wild goats in Crete are said, when wounded by arrow, to go in search of dittany, which is supposed to have the property of ejecting arrows in the body." In Virgil's "Aeneid",  Venus heals the wounded Aeneas with a stalk of "dittany from Cretan Ida," a plant "with downy leaves and scarlet flower" that goats eat when stuck with arrows.

In J.K. Rowling's  'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,' Dittany is named as a substance which can prevent scarring if applied quickly enough after a cutting injury. The herb is used by modern witches in love potions and for divination and contact with spirits. When using Dittany of Crete as an incense, it is said that spirits tend to materialize in the smoke. Small doses of the herb are believed to enhance one's ability to perform astral projection.

Wild Origanum dictamnus is classed as "rare" and protected by European law. It is cultivated at Embaros and surrounding villages south of Heraklion, Crete. 

Propagation by seed should be done in early spring in a greenhouse, only just covering the seed. Germination usually takes place within 2 weeks. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and plant them out into their permanent positions in early summer. Division in March or October.

Very easy, larger divisions can be planted out directly into their permanent positions. It is better to pot up the smaller divisions and grow them in light shade in a cold frame until they are well established before planting them out in late spring or early summer. Basal cuttings of young barren shoots in June. Harvest the shoots with plenty of underground stem when they are about 3 inches above the ground. Pot them up into individual pots and keep them in light shade in a cold frame or greenhouse until they are rooting well. Plant them out in the summer.

Resources include:

Dittany of Crete
Dave's Garden
Mountain Valley Growers

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